Warren Gatland expects his grand slam champions to show more urgency against England in Cardiff on Saturday after Sunday’s defeat at Twickenham, warning his players about the consequences of another lacklustre display five weeks before their opening match in the World Cup.
The reverse at Twickenham ended a run of 14 consecutive victories and, while Gatland, Wales’s head coach since the end of 2007, said he did not place a premium on results in warm-ups, likening them to pre-season friendlies at club level, he anticipates a response.
“We will be a lot better,” said Gatland, who has made three changes from Sunday with Dan Biggar starting at fly-half instead of Gareth Anscombe, who suffered a knee injury at Twickenham that will keep him out of action for most of the season. The back-five forwards Adam Beard and Justin Tipuric sustained minor knocks against England and have been replaced by Jake Ball and James Davies, who will start a Test match alongside his brother, Jonathan, for the first time.
“We were pretty relaxed on Sunday. We play our best when we are on edge mentally and, apart from the injuries, we have chosen the guys again for this weekend. If some of them do not front up and perform, they will open the door for someone else. We have made the players aware that they are under pressure.”
Gatland was not tempted to rest Biggar following Anscombe’s injury with his other two options at fly-half, Rhys Patchell and Jarrod Evans, both having limited international experience. Anscombe played on for a few minutes after suffering knee ligament damage last weekend but the damage had already been done.
“We felt it was important Dan started the game because he came off the bench a lot for us in the Six Nations,” said Gatland. “Jarrod will get some time from the bench this weekend and we will try and involve Rhys as we have a game against Ireland before we select the squad for Japan.”
It is two years since Biggar, who has won 70 caps, was Wales’s first-choice No 10. He gave way first to Patchell and then to Anscombe as Wales looked to widen their game and inject continuity. For all their set-piece woes at Twickenham they stretched England’s defence and blew three tries through mistimed passes.
“We can play different ways tactically, as we showed against England in the Six Nations,” said Gatland. “We went out to play more attacking rugby at Twickenham and made a number of line breaks. There was some good stuff but, unfortunately, our error rate was high. The issue was execution not decision-making.”
Wales will again be without their Lions’ full-back Leigh Halfpenny who has not played international rugby since being concussed during the victory over Australia last November. Anscombe’s absence only adds to his value as a goal-kicker.
“We know about Leigh and have to find out about some other players,” said Gatland. “We have another opportunity to look at the same back three and he may not play in the next game. He has been training exceptionally well. He has been an important mainstay for us for a number of years and I am sure he will continue to be that. He will get some game time.”
Before the Six Nations match against England last February Gatland singled out the prop Kyle Sinckler for attention, questioning the length of his fuse. Not this time with the Harlequin, who was replaced after 56 minutes after conceding two penalties in as many minutes for indiscipline, named on the bench.
“I shook hands with Kyle on Sunday,” said Gatland, who took Sinckler to New Zealand with the 2017 Lions. “He played exceptionally well for most of the time in that game in the Six Nations. Players have to be careful of their mindset on the pitch and, as he gets older, he will continue to get better.
“Sometimes you make comments about players and they can be effective: the aim with Kyle was to impact on others so that they were constantly watching out for him. On other occasions you make remarks and get your pants pulled down, which happened over Dylan Hartley a few years ago. He won man of the match and made me look an idiot.”