As the blistering sun of the Cote d’Azur shone through the window of Wales’ luxurious hotel on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais on Thursday, Warren Gatland didn’t mince his words when questioned about his team’s current predicament.
There can be no getting away from the fact this has been a tough Six Nations for Wales and Gatland after his return as head coach. His side has had difficult times on and off the field.
Gatland acknowledged as much when he spoke on the French Riviera, shortly before the Welsh squad flew to Paris for their final Championship clash with France tomorrow.
Asked how far Wales are away from nailing international rugby’s best moments like the top teams in the world are capable of, Gatland was unequivocal.
‘A long way at the moment,’ he responded with brutal honesty.
Warren Gatland acknowledges Wales are a ‘long way’ off challenging the world’s top teams
Gatland has been unable to get his team to focus on matters on the field when a huge storm has raised off it with contractual and financial uncertainty within the domestic game
Gatland expanded: ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do. There are a lot of areas. We need to be in better shape physically. That often fixes up a couple of issues.
‘We’ve been working hard but we’ve definitely seen in a few training sessions where we’ve pushed them very hard physically, the accuracy went towards the end because we were fatigued.
‘We weren’t accurate from a skill perspective and weren’t making the right decisions. Other teams used to talk about how tough we were mentally and physically. That’ll be a huge focus for us building over the next couple of months. We’ve got some skill work to do. We’ve been working hard on these areas each week.’
Gatland’s comments might serve as a rather depressing tonic for Welsh fans, but they are also an accurate representation of where his team is at right now.
Wales haven’t been helped by ongoing contractual and financial uncertainty in their domestic game throughout this Six Nations which led to a player threat to strike before the England match.
Gatland admitted he had been unable to get his team to fully focus on matters on the field when such a huge storm has raged off it.
‘I don’t know if I’ve done that,’ the New Zealander said. ‘It’s been a challenge. There has been so much going on throughout the whole campaign. It’s definitely had an impact on the players emotionally. It’s been brilliant for us to come down here (Nice). One of the players joked we should base ourselves here full time and fly into Wales for the games. I thought it was a brilliant idea!
‘I might put that suggestion to the board!’
Wales are currently miles behind world leaders Ireland and Saturday’s opponent France
After defeats by Ireland, Scotland and England, Wales ensured they should avoid finishing bottom of the Six Nations pile with a much-needed victory in Italy last week.
On leaving Rome, Wales have spent the week training in Nice to mimic the preparations they will do when visiting the city for the World Cup later this year.
Wales will surely improve the closer they get to the global showpiece and the longer they spend under Gatland’s guidance. They will have to.
On the evidence of this Six Nations they are miles behind world leaders Ireland and France. It is Les Bleus who are up next.
Gatland has rotated his side once again, making a total of six changes from the team which beat Italy with a bonus point. Across this Six Nations, Gatland has made a mammoth total of 26 changes.
It gives off the impression he is working on selection by numbers.
‘We said we were going to make those changes,’ Gatland said.
‘Right from the very start we said we were going to give the younger members of the squad some experience at this level to try and develop them. This is a big game to see where some of the experienced players are at. We’ve still got a lot of work to do with the younger players.’
After flipflopping between youth and experience so far, the Welsh old guard returns for France.
Back come George North, Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones. Out go rookie centre pairing Joe Hawkins and Mason Grady – both 20 – who started the England and Italy games.
The Six Nations title is still a possibility for France but they will be hoping that England can do them a favour when they travel to current leaders Ireland in the late-game on S
Wales’ back-line was carved to bits by Italy even in victory. France, who inflicted on England their worst ever Twickenham defeat with a 53-10 hammering last weekend, are ruthless in attack which perhaps explains why Gatland has gone for the experience of North and Nick Tompkins in midfield.
FRANCE VS WALES BETTING ODDS
Louis Rees-Zammit starts at full-back instead of his usual wing position. No 8 Taulupe Faletau will win his 100th Welsh cap in a milestone game for him.
For France, the Six Nations title is still a possibility so long as they beat Wales and Grand Slam-chasing Ireland lose at home to England. Ireland look unlikely to fall short.
French forwards Uini Atonio and Romain Taofifenua are the only changes from the team that hammered England.
Wales are as big as 14/1 in some places to come out on top in what is essentially a two-horse race. It tells the story of where the two outfits are at right now perfectly.
‘To be in a position to win the Six Nations we first have to go up against Wales and we can’t mistake who our opponents are,’ said France head coach Fabien Galthie.
‘We prefer to focus on our match, then we have control of our destiny. Afterwards, it’s not down to us.’
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)