We look at the news coming from each camp ahead of the weekend’s Six Nations Round 3 encounters as Wales host England, France welcome Scotland and Ireland travel to Italy…
Owens: Wales need win after horrendous two weeks; I never want to experience this again | Borthwick has ‘incredible sympathy’
Ahead of Wales’ clash vs England in Cardiff, an exhausted-looking Welsh skipper Ken Owens spoke to media on Friday after a hugely tumultuous week for rugby in the country.
The latest instalment of one of rugby union’s fiercest rivalries was hit by the threat of Wales players taking strike action.
That was averted late on Wednesday after compromises were found with Welsh rugby powerbrokers over issues like Wales’ 60-cap selection policy for players plying their trade outside the country, and fixed-variable contracts.
“I’m not going to lie and say it’s been an easy two weeks. It’s been something I’ll definitely learn from, and I’ll never want to experience again, If I’m being completely honest,” Owens said at the Principality Stadium.
“We need a win. To get pride back in the shirt after two defeats and, like I said, a horrendous two weeks, but we can only focus on the rugby now.
“Moving forward, that’s what we need to concentrate on. It’s about getting a result on Saturday to put some pride back into the shirt.
“I spoke about that in the first week of the Six Nations, and I don’t feel we’ve done that yet.
“I’m just trying to finish this saga on a positive.”
Owens termed Wales the “laughing stock of world rugby” earlier in the week, while head coach Warren Gatland has spoken of “drawing a line in the sand” on off-field issues.
Gatland delayed naming his team by 48 hours with the England game under serious threat of not going ahead.
But with the green light given and Gatland having selected a side showing nine changes, including no places for British and Irish Lions trio George North, Dan Biggar and Liam Williams, Saturday cannot come soon enough.
“These are circumstances that have been brought on by ourselves, and we can only take responsibility for those things ourselves,” Gatland said, reflecting on events of the past week, having said earlier in the week he “would not support a player strike”.
“The focus needs to be purely on training well, drawing a line in the sand with what has happened and then bringing out the passion, history and expectation that comes with an England-Wales fixture.
“I was asked by the players not to name the team on Tuesday, and that was as much about as protecting them as well.
“If the game did get called off with naming a 23, then all of a sudden those 23 players are in the spotlight and almost being accused of calling the game off.
“So it was as much about protecting the players in the squad until we had confirmation that the game was going ahead.”
Cap centurions Biggar and North are replaced by Ospreys’ Owen Williams and 20-year-old Cardiff centre Mason Grady respectively, with Grady making his Test debut. Biggar drops to the bench, but North and Liam Williams miss out completely.
“The message to them (North and Williams) is the same I gave to the squad on day one,” Gatland said.
“We will be looking at some of the players in this group who haven’t had a lot of rugby. We need to expose young players, but keep some experience around them.
“There is a lot of work for us to continue to do as a group to get better and the levels I know we can get to. We are not at those levels yet.
“There is potentially a little more pain to go through, but I am confident we will come through the other side.”
Gatland added: “For both of us (Wales and England), this game is absolutely massive.
“If we win on Saturday, then we go away to Italy and France and we can finish the Six Nations on a real positive.
“For (England), a loss on Saturday and their last two games are France and Ireland, which are pretty challenging as well.”
On the England side, head coach Steve Borthwick sympathises with the plight of Wales’ players in their dispute with the Welsh Rugby Union while plotting their downfall in Cardiff.
“Myself and everybody with the England team, we have incredible sympathy for what the Welsh players have gone through,” Borthwick said.
“No player, no professional athlete, should have to deal with that level of uncertainty and anxiety. We really sympathise with them.
“From our point of view, we’ve focused on the game and being the best prepared team we possibly can be. Other stuff we can’t control, so we just concentrate on what we can do.
“To be part of a fixture like this, it’s terrific. We embrace it and we can’t wait to get down to Cardiff. There has been a buzz around training all week.”
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Josh Adams, 13 Mason Grady, 12 Joe Hawkins, 11 Louis Res-Zammit, 10 Owen Williams, 9 Tomos Williams; 1 Gareth Thomas, 2 Ken Owens (c), 3 Tomas Francis, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 5 Adam Beard, 6 Christ Tshiunza, 7 Justin Tipuric, 8 Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: 16 Bradley Roberts, 17 Rhys Carre, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Dafydd Jenkins, 20 Tommy Reffell, 21 Kieran Hardy, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Nick Tompkins.
England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Max Malins, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Lawrence, 11 Anthony Watson, 10 Owen Farrell (c), 9 Jack van Poortvliet; 1 Ellis Genge, 2 Jamie George, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 4 Ollie Chessum, 5 Maro Itoje, 6 Lewis Ludlam, 7 Jack Willis, 8 Alex Dombrandt
Replacements: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 Ben Curry, 21 Alex Mitchell, 22 Marcus Smith, 23 Henry Arundell.
Townsend: Scotland need to go up a few levels for French Test
Gregor Townsend has challenged his Scotland players to “go up a few levels” as he backed them to deal with the formidable test they face against France in Paris this weekend.
The Scots sit level on points with Ireland at the top of the Six Nations table after opening their campaign with bonus-point wins away to England and at home to Wales.
However, head coach Townsend feels they will need to show further improvement if they are to maintain their perfect start in the Stade de France against the side ranked second in the world.
“We were tough on the players going into the Wales week, and rightly so because in the past we haven’t backed up our first performance going into the second week of the Six Nations and also because we believed there was much more to come from the group,” Townsend said, speaking on Friday as the team prepared to fly to Paris.
“We feel the same way this week. I think the players realise what a big test this is going to be, playing one of the best teams in the world on their home patch, at a venue we haven’t had much success (at) over the past 100 years.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge but we can match that challenge. We can improve from the Wales game. Going into a game like this on the back of wins is a much better place to be than if you’re coming off the back of defeats.
“You’ve got that confident feeling about how you’re playing and you’ve also got evidence that what you’re doing is leading to good things.”
Townsend unsurprisingly has kept changes to a minimum, with just one alteration to the starting XV as 2021 British and Irish Lions squad member Hamish Watson takes the place of fellow Edinburgh flanker Luke Crosbie. Ali Price – another Lion – is back in the squad as one of the subs after being left out of the 23 for the opening two games due to lack of form.
“We give consideration to every player who’s in the mix for selection,” said the head coach. “The easy thing would be to go ‘we’ve won a game, let’s not even have a discussion, let’s move on to the next game’.
“You want to reward players that are playing well but I’ve said ever since the Wales and England games, we’re not playing at our best yet. We need to go up a few levels.
“That can come through the team that get the second opportunity or it can come from other players we feel can help us improve. The standard of training has made selection difficult but to bring back Hamish Watson and Ali Price, who have played very well for us in the past and have been showing in training that they are ready to go again, that’s the situation you want to get in.
“Hamish has trained well and had two games so we believe he’ll be back at the level we know he can play at,” said the coach. “We believe he’s a good foil for the way France want to play and also adds speed to our attack.
“While it’s tough on Luke Crosbie and Jack Dempsey, who was also in the mix, it’s a good thing for us to have that level of competition.
“Hamish is in our leadership group, he was captain for us in the summer in Argentina. He’s really stepped up as a leader over the last year or two so that experience can help from a psychological level when players look around and see someone who’s been there 50-plus times for Scotland. It’s down to Hamish to deliver, and that’s what we’re expecting him to do.”
France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Yoram Moefana, 11 Ethan Dumortier, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont (c); 1 Cyril Baille, 2 Julien Marchand, 3 Mohamed Haouas, 4 Thibaud Flament, 5 Paul Willemse, 6 Anthony Jelonch, 7 Charles Ollivon, 8 Gregory Alldritt.
Replacements: 16 Gaetan Barlot, 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Sipili Falatea, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Francois Cros, 21 Sekou Macalou, 22 Baptiste Couilloud, 23 Matthieu Jalibert.
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Kyle Steyn, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Sione Tuipulotu, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ben White; 1 Pierre Schoeman, 2 George Turner, 3 Zander Fagerson, 4 Richie Gray, 5 Grant Gilchrist, 6 Jamie Ritchie (c), 7 Hamish Watson, 8 Matt Fagerson
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 WP Nel, 19 Jonny Gray, 20 Sam Skinner, 21 Jack Dempsey, 22 Ali Price, 23 Blair Kinghorn
Farrell: Byrne and Casey deserve shot at running the show in Rome
Ireland boss Andy Farrell has insisted rookie half-back pair Ross Byrne and Craig Casey fully merit the opportunity to run the show in Rome.
Farrell has made six changes for Saturday’s Six Nations showdown with Italy, including handing fly-half Byrne and scrum-half Casey maiden career starts in the championship.
Byrne will deputise for injured Leinster team-mate Johnny Sexton in the No 10 jersey to continue his international resurgence, while Casey comes in for fellow Munster man Conor Murray.
The fledgling pair have combined well from the bench in victories over Wales and France in the opening two rounds of the tournament and Farrell expects more of the same at Stadio Olimpico.
“They have earned the right to start,” said Farrell. “And, from what we have seen so far, it’s been a good start to the week.
“Preparation has been great and yeah, they seem ready for it.”
Speaking specifically of Byrne, he continued: “He’s been great. He’s earned the right to run the team and transfer everything that we have seen in training to a performance that’s got authority and takes his team with him.”
Byrne feared his Test career may be over before returning from 20 months in the international wilderness to kick the decisive penalty in Ireland’s autumn win over Australia.
Hooker Ronan Kelleher, lock Iain Henderson, No 8 Jack Conan and centre Bundee Aki have also been recalled to face the Azzurri.
Just two of the alterations are enforced, with Sexton and Tadhg Beirne ruled out by injuries sustained in the 32-19 success over the French.
Farrell dismissed the notion he has shaken things up “for the sake of it” and expects his Grand Slam-chasing side to produce their best display of the competition so far.
“We have been together for a good few weeks now, so people are certainly up to speed,” he said.
“People wouldn’t have been selected if they weren’t in the right place.
“We’re not just turning things around for the sake of it, we are turning things around because we think it’s a strong side for us going forward, for this game and for the future as well.
“I don’t think there are that many changes, to be fair.
“The reality is, this is our third game of the competition and we expect it to be our best performance of the competition. That’s how it should be and that’s what we are aiming for.”
Italy: 15 Ange Capuozzo, 14 Edoardo Padovani, 13 Juan Ignacio Brex, 12 Tommaso Menoncello, 11 Pierre Bruno, 10 Paolo Garbisi, 9 Stephen Varney; 1 Danilo Fischetti, 2 Giacomo Nicotera, 3 Simone Ferrari, 4 Niccolo Cannone, 5 Federico Ruzza, 6 Sebastian Negri, 7 Michele Lamaro (c), 8 Lorenzo Cannone.
Replacements: 16 Luca Bigi, 17 Federico Zani, 18 Marco Riccioni, 19 Edoardo Iachizzi, 20 Giovanni Pettinelli, 21 Alessandro Fusco, 22 Luca Morisi, 23 Tomasso Allan
Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Stuart McCloskey, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Craig Casey; 1 Andrew Porter, 2 Ronan Kelleher, 3 Finlay Bealham, 4 Iain Henderson, 5 James Ryan (c), 6 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 8 Jack Conan.
Replacements: 16 Dan Sheehan, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Tom O’Toole, 19 Ryan Baird, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Jack Crowley, 23 Jimmy O’Brien.