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Warren Gatland has revealed that a threat of possible player strike action before Wales’ Six Nations game against England caused “quite a significant split” and “tension” within his squad.
Wales head to Rome for a Six Nations assignment against Italy on Saturday after losing their opening three games. Another defeat could mean a first Six Nations wooden spoon for 20 years, given that Wales’ final fixture is against France in Paris.
A crushing contractual and financial backdrop has engulfed Welsh regional rugby, with all four professional teams – Cardiff, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets – facing major funding cuts, leading to vastly reduced contract offers for many players whose deals expire at the end of this season. A player exodus appears inevitable.
Along with thorny subjects such as Wales’s former 60-cap national selection rule and fixed-variable contracts, off-field problems led to the prospect of a players’ strike before England’s Cardiff visit last month. Although a strike was averted and the game went ahead as scheduled, with Steve Borthwick’s team winning 20-10, Gatland said: “In terms of the stuff that was going on off the field, that definitely had an impact. There was quite a significant split in the group over which way to go, and I think that definitely caused some tension within the group for a couple of weeks.
“I think if things do get signed and get sorted and we get Welsh rugby back on the right track, it will be positive for everyone. Time was the healer. It was definitely quite fractious, which is understandable because people have different opinions.
“I don’t have an issue with that, but sometimes that can create tension and on reflection that definitely happened with guys having strong views one way or the other. I think things have settled down over the last couple of weeks.”
Gatland added: “There were big moments in the England game where there were no celebrations from our players – no slapping backsides or congratulating guys about turnovers. That has sort of been the message this week, making sure we celebrate as a group. When I look back and saw we weren’t doing that against England, that is probably a reflection of where we were as a group.”
Gatland has made six changes for the Stadio Olimpico encounter, with the full-back Liam Williams, the wing Rio Dyer, the scrum-half Rhys Webb, the prop Wyn Jones, the lock Dafydd Jenkins and the flanker Jac Morgan called up. Leigh Halfpenny (hamstring) and Dan Biggar (back) were not considered, while other players absent include the lock Alun Wyn Jones and the flanker Christ Tshiunza.
Webb makes a first Test start since October 2020, replacing Tomos Williams, and Dyer is preferred to Louis Rees-Zammit, who is joined on the bench by George North, Rhys Davies and Tommy Reffell.
Italy, meanwhile, who memorably beat Wales in Cardiff last year, made one change to their starting XV, with the Harlequins fly-half Tommy Allan starting at full-back in place of the injured Ange Capuozzo.
Capuozzo created Italy’s winning try in Cardiff last season, but he is sidelined by a shoulder injury that has meant the Azzurri head coach, Kieran Crowley, makes one enforced change to the team that pushed title favorites Ireland close last time out.
Gatland has seen Wales lose to Ireland, Scotland and England since he returned for a second spell. “We have been disappointed with the results so far, and for me it is hard to take as it is the first time I have lost three games in the Six Nations with Wales,” he said. “It is about trying to get a handle on where we are, and we still have a lot of work to do. We have got some young players who are pretty exciting and need a bit of time.
“For a number of players it could be their last year in a Welsh jersey as well, so there will be that sort of transition going forward. We are not quite where we want to be in terms of that process, but I can tell we are working hard.
“One of the things I’ve always said is that you cannot coach experience. Sometimes young players make mistakes and you’ve got to allow them to do that. They learn from playing at the highest level and gain that knowledge from international rugby. That’s why for a number of them we have got to give them time in the middle.”
Strike threat caused ‘significant split’ in Wales squad, admits Warren Gatland
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