Warren Gatland: 'The focus needs to be on drawing a line in the sand and bringing out the passion, history and expectation'

Warren Gatland is trying to focus on the 80-minutes against England after a week like no other in Welsh Rugby

For Welsh Rugby, this week has been unprecedented in its drama.

Threats of player strikes that left Wales vs England, one of the nation’s biggest sporting fixtures of the year, in jeopardy were the climax of what captain Ken Owens described as a ‘merry-go-round of crisis after crisis.'

Allegations of bullying and sexism within the union - and now the latest controversial episode of potential strike action - has capped off a chaotic couple of months for the WRU.

The controversy of Tom Jones’ ‘Delilah’ being banned from The Principality Stadium at the start of the Six Nations now seems a distant and trivial memory in comparison.

Despite the whirlwind of headlines, Wales vs England will go ahead as scheduled. Their performances are so often enhanced by an emotional occasion, but head coach Warren Gatland says his squad aren’t using the off-field drama to spur them on.

He said: “It's not something that we’ll be talking about. I don’t think there’s any lack of motivation and passion between Wales and England in getting up for the game.

“The focus needs to be purely on the next few days and drawing a line in the sand with what has happened and bringing out the passion, history and expectation that comes with an England-Wales fixture.”

Gatland has rung the changes for Saturday's clash bringing back a wealth of experience compared to the side that faced Scotland which was relatively light on caps. The Wales boss hints his selection was possibly dictated by the adversity that his players have faced this week.

He has recalled five British and Irish Lions in Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, Louis Rees-Zammit and Leigh Halfpenny. “Some of those experienced players have been through a lot of big situations, Grand Slams, winning Six Nations and World Cup semi-finals.

“They’ve handled a huge amount of pressure. It’s definitely been a challenging week with all that’s been going on.”

The last few weeks have also been one of the poorest in recent memory for the Welsh Rugby team on the field as well. They were swatted aside comfortably by a very impressive Ireland side in a fixture that is usually so competitive and, at times, dominant for the Welsh. Ireland’s Round One win in Cardiff was their first in the Six Nations since 2013.

Their 35-7 hammering against Scotland left many clueless as to where Wales could go from there.

England, who have had a mixed start to their tournament but have looked good in flashes, must be thinking Wales are there for the taking and Gatland said that he would relish a dynamic between the two sides where Steve Borthwick's men underestimated the task they have on Saturday.

He said: “I hope it’s (seen as) easy pickings. I’m sure a number of players (in the England camp) will be talking about coming to Wales and it’s never an easy fixture.

“They’ve asked for the roof to be open, we would’ve preferred it closed. The ironic thing is that we have a better win record when it’s open than when it’s closed. I don’t know whether they’ve done their homework on that.

“For both of us, 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. It’s definitely a huge game for both England and Wales.”

Gareth Thomas is another player who has been recalled to the starting team having been dropped altogether for the Scotland game.

He admits that the off-field chaos has been “frustrating” but ultimately, he has not been distracted and is raring to go against England.

“It’s been very different, obviously frustrating but we’re here today [Thursday], ready to train and looking forward to Saturday.

“I’m just happy to be back involved and looking forward to going up against a good pack. Both of us (Thomas and Tomas Francis) really pride ourselves with the set piece so I’m really looking forward to that battle. We’re all guns blazing.”

One of the big selection calls made by the Welsh this week was the decision to drop George North. The Osprey, who has inhabited the 13 jersey for the best part of two years, has been forced to make way for 20-year-old Mason Grady.

He will make his international debut on Saturday and Thomas likes the look of the young centre: “He’s looking really physical and I'm really looking forward to seeing him go.”

Grady will be part of a Welsh attack that has looked impressive at times and has had little difficulty creating chances and getting into promising positions.

However, the attack has lacked a clinical instinct to finish off the chances they have had. The points per 22 entry has been well below par. They averaged 0.91 points per 22 entry against Ireland and 0.54 against Scotland. Wales will need to be much more accurate to stand any chance against England.

“It just needs to click. We’re creating a lot of things but just finishing off those little moments will be massive for us," added Thomas.

The possibility of any silverware has gone for Wales in the Six Nations but a win against England would go a long way in boosting the morale of not only the squad but the country as a whole.

This week has been one of the lowest in the side’s history. Emerging victorious in Cardiff would show that there is plenty of life in Welsh Rugby.