ALEX BYWATER: It has been a Six Nations of misery for Gatland's Wales
ALEX BYWATER: It has been a Six Nations of misery for Warren Gatland’s Wales both on and off the field… but there is likely to be more pain to come with a red-hot France their final opponents in Paris on Saturday
- Championship comes to an end in Paris on Saturday for Warren Gatland’s side
- He admitted Wales are a long way from competing with the world’s best teams
- They have significant work to do if they are to be competitive at the World Cup
It has been a Six Nations of misery for Wales both on and off the field.
The Championship comes to an end in Paris on Saturday for Warren Gatland’s side and it will be a blessed relief when the final whistle sounds.
Wales will want to forget the last few months and quickly but there is likely to be more pain to come with a red-hot France their final opponents. The result, surely, is predictable.
Strike threats, contractual uncertainty and financial chaos have all characterised Wales’ 2023 so far and after heavy defeats by Ireland, Scotland and England, victory over Italy in Rome last weekend was a rare, much-needed moment of positivity. Sadly, it has been the only one.
Gatland admitted at his side’s training camp in Nice earlier this week that Wales are a long way from competing with the world’s best teams. He is not wrong.
Warren Gatland’s side play France in Paris in their final game of the Six Nations on Saturday
Saturday’s game at the Stade de France is likely to be a last Six Nations clash for Ken Owens
Four years ago, in what he thought would be his final Six Nations in charge, Gatland guided Wales to a dramatic victory in Paris.
A Grand Slam and an ascent, albeit brief, to No 1 in World Rugby’s rankings followed.
Now, Wales are nowhere – also-rans in the game’s pecking order. They have significant work to do if they are to be competitive at the World Cup later this year.
‘It’s been a bit frustrating as we expect a lot from ourselves, as do the Welsh public,’ said Wales captain Ken Owens. ‘We haven’t performed as consistently as we would have liked.
‘We have to keep building. We had a good performance last week, a good win, and we have to deliver again this week leading into the World Cup preparation.’
After returning as head coach in December, Gatland is still getting a feel for his squad.
He is balancing a team which is a blend of gnarled experience and youthful exuberance. The contrast is huge.
Saturday’s game at the Stade de France is likely to be a last Six Nations clash for Owens, iconic lock forward Alun Wyn Jones and perhaps fly-half Dan Biggar.
Taulupe Faletau will win his 100th Welsh cap in a milestone game for the No 8.
It is no excuse for their on-field performances, but Wales’ players have also been badly let down by their shambolic Welsh Rugby Union bosses this year.
It remains the case that out-of-contract Welsh-based players are still unable to officially sign new deals with their regions.
No. 8 Taulupe Faletau scores with victory over Italy last weekend a rare moment of positivity
Gatland’s Wales squad threatened to strike ahead of their defeat by England at the Principality
Gatland’s squad threatened to strike ahead of their defeat by England in a week which will live long in the memory for those involved.
But even that hasn’t led to a contractual resolution. There is hope it will soon be resolved, but for many players that will come too late.
‘I’ve never had a week in my career like the week we had,’ said Wales centre Nick Tompkins, looking back on the complete and utter chaos that was the Welsh build-up to England.
‘I’ve never had the disruption of the training, how bad the boys felt, the mixed emotions. Contracts, careers and livelihoods were on the line. That’s a serious thing and it’s a sobering thought.’
As a Saracens player, Tompkins wasn’t directly affected by the contractual wrangling but as a Wales squad member he also saw the stark impact it had on his team-mates.
‘It’s a fine thread with rugby. You think you’re safe,’ Tompkins said. ‘I’ve had experiences of teams in my league dropping out and you’re talking 70 boys out of contract who can’t pay their mortgage.
‘It’s life for us. That week really brought it home. The meetings we were involved in carried a massive weight for the nation in terms of the boys playing that weren’t in that group.
‘We owed it to them to have a voice and stand strong. That game (England) wasn’t going to go ahead until we sorted it.
‘That was probably one of the darkest and intense weeks, just speaking from my point of view and I’m a player who doesn’t even play at one of the regions.
‘I know Ken went to absolute hell. There were sleepless nights. It was tough.’
Wales have one last chance of some solace against France. Gatland has again rotated his side, opting for experience in Paris with Biggar, North and Jones all returning to the starting side.
France are likely to just miss out on the title to Grand Slam-chasing Ireland on Saturday
Fabien Galthie’s men can still win the Six Nations if they beat Wales and Ireland lose to England
France: Ramos; Penaud, Fickou, Danty, Dumortier; Ntamack, Dupont (capt); Baille, Marchand, Atonio, Flament, Taofifenua, Cros, Ollivon, Alldritt
Replacements: Mauvaka, Wardi, Falatea, Chalureau, Macalou, Lucu, Moefana, Jaminet
Wales: Rees-Zammit; Adams, North, Tompkins, Dyer; Biggar, Webb; W Jones, Owens (capt), Francis, Beard, AW Jones, Wainwright, Tipuric, Faletau.
Replacements: Roberts, Thomas, Lewis, Jenkins, Reffell, T Williams, O Williams, Halfpenny
Kick-off: 2.45pm Saturday
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
In total, Gatland has made 26 changes to his teams across Wales’ five Six Nations matches.
He has searched for a winning formula, given youth its chance, and managed his old guard.
The end result is likely to be one win from five matches, leaving Wales with significant progress to make in the build-up to the World Cup.
It is good news for Gatland that his team is in by far the better half of the draw for that tournament – also in France – later this year.
For France, they are likely to just miss out on the title to Grand Slam-chasing Ireland.
They can still win the Championship if they beat Wales as expected and Ireland lose to England in Dublin.
Even though that is a long shot, there is no doubt France are one of the two best sides on the planet right now.
They showed that by inflicting a record Twickenham hammering on England and will also likely demonstrate to Wales on Saturday how far they are behind.
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