Squad split over strike threat, avoiding wooden spoon and more bold selections - It's another massive weekend for Wales

Wales boss Warren Gatland has said their winless run in the Six Nations is a 'new experience' and has been hard for 'him to take'

For Wales, wooden spoons are nearly unheard of in the Six Nations. The last came two decades ago. 

To put that into context, rising stars Joe Hawkins and Mason Grady were both less than a year old the last time Wales finished bottom in the tournament.

However, this is the reality facing Warren Gatland’s side as they take on an impressive Italian outfit this weekend before heading to Paris for France in the final round.

The head coach has made six changes to the starting 15 that faced England. Possibly the biggest decision Gatland has made this week was to drop Dan Biggar from the 23 entirely and give the reins to Owen Williams at fly-half.

The Ospreys 10 was quietly impressive against England and popped up with some tidy touches. It does, however, leave Wales with less cover at fly-half but centre Hawkins can step in.

Gatland is confident in the team's depth and said of Hawkins’ possible role as a 10: “He (Hawkins) has played there a lot. He’s covered that position on a number of occasions for the Ospreys.

"We’ve been running him there in training and he’s looked comfortable and we’re pretty happy with that because it gives us a bit more cover on the bench with Louis (Rees-Zammit) and George (North) in the midfield.

"He definitely looks comfortable there as a cover option for us."

Italy have come on leaps and bounds, particularly in this tournament. They were in positions where they could have beaten both France and Ireland had more gone their way. It is a stark contrast to just last year, with some calling for them to be ousted from the tournament because they weren’t competitive enough.

They did, however, beat Wales in Cardiff in 2022 to end their seven-year losing sequence in the Six Nations and Gatland is aware of their threat despite Italy also falling to three defeats thus far: "They’re definitely the most athletic Italy team that we’ve seen. I think Ange Capuozzo [shoulder injury] is a big loss for them. They try to play a wide game and they’ve had some success with that but they’ve also been squeezed on a few occasions.

"Ireland changed defensively from the first half and got much better in the second half.”

Selection - Change and Continuity 

A hallmark of the Gatland era has been his consistency in selection but the opening four rounds of this campaign have gone against that trend. With six more this week, Gatland stresses the importance of maintaining continuity whilst also finding the best combinations.

He said: "We’re still giving players the chance to impress. There’s a balance between continuity and seeing where some players are at this level.

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"We didn’t include Christ (Tshiunza) in this game but we’re happy with his progression. It’s sometimes hard when those players go back to England and miss the fallow weeks and the work that we’re doing.

The centre partnership of Hawkins and Grady has been given the nod for another week, and Gatland thinks there is more to come from the duo.

"I think they’re still developing. They’ve got a lot of work to do as a partnership and that continuity is quite important. You can’t coach experience and sometimes a young player makes mistakes and you’ve got to allow them to do that and they learn from playing at the highest level. That’s why for a number of them we’ve got to give them time."

Strike threat caused significant split in Wales camp

Gatland admits that the recent off-field drama and possible strike action did cause tension within the playing group and possibly affected their performance against England.

Wales' players did consider pulling out of the fixture due to unresolved financial and contractual uncertainty in the domestic game, and Gatland said that a divide in the squad was created.

"The stuff that was going on off the field definitely had an impact and caused quite a split in the group over which way to go and that definitely caused some tension for those couple of weeks.

"When things do get sorted we’ll be able to get Welsh Rugby sorted and back on track. It was quite fractious which was understandable because people have different opinions but sometimes that can create tension and on reflection that definitely happened.

"There were big moments in the England game where there were no celebrations from our players. When I look back and saw we weren't doing that, that's probably a reflection of where we were as a group. Things have definitely settled down."

Webb returns

Saturday will also see the return of Rhys Webb whose days in a Welsh jersey looked to be over after moving to Toulon and missing out on selection during Wayne Pivac’s time as Head Coach.

His last start in the tournament came in 2017, and he is relishing the chance that he has worked so hard for.

He said: “I’m over the moon to get the jersey and it’s something I’ve worked hard to get hold of. To get called into the Six Nations was a huge honour for me but I didn’t want to just be here to make up the numbers. I’m a competitive person and I wanted to fight for that jersey."

Webb is also positive after the off-field issues facing Welsh Rugby and even though 90 or so players who are out of contract at the end of this season haven't yet penned new deals, he is eager to try and look forward: “I’m not one to look too far back.

"It was a tough week but it’s gone now. We’ve had a good couple of weeks since that and we showed glimpses of what we can do against England and there’s a lot more to come."