By Rob Cole
Warren Gatland is hoping Wales can ramp up the pressure on Eddie Jones’ England by relegating them to their lowest finishing position in the Six Nations since 2018.
Gatland admits that finishing as runners-up to Ireland will be “massive” for his side after away defeats in Twickenham and Dublin.
A win over France, conquerors of England in Paris, on Saturday should be good enough to do that.
Alun Wyn Jones comes back to lead the Welsh side among seven changes from the side that beat Italy 38-14 in Round 4. Dan Biggar has won the No 10 shirt back and Josh Navidi returns in the back row.
With Ireland having already clinched the title ahead of their Grand Slam trip to Twickenham, all eyes are on fixed on the positions beneath them. England could finish as low as fifth for the first time if results go against them.
Jones was forced to apologise to both the Irish and Welsh this week for derogatory comments he made at a dinner last year, where he called the Irish as “scummy” and Wales as a “s*** country”, but Gatland believes all the pressure is on his side on the field, not off it.
“We all say things behind closed doors, talking about ourselves and other nations. Eddie makes a few comments and stuff, but it is not offensive to us,” said Gatland.
“The pressure for England isn’t about his comments, it is about winning on Saturday. That’s the real pressure they are under because they have to win.
“That’s how important it is to them because if they lose against Ireland they could potentially go from a losing streak of two to six games pretty quickly with three Tests coming up in South Africa.
“They have got their own things to sort out, but it will be massive for us to finish second. We’ve felt all along that we could do well in this Six Nations.
“We are in a much stronger position that we were two or three years ago in terms of depth in the squad and it is nice to have those selection dilemmas.”
And Gatland reckons Wales are “in a good place and not too far away” as they prepare to try to beat France.
That would be a big turn-around from the bitter disappointment of ending up one off the bottom a year ago and would provide further evidence to Gatland and his coaching team that they are building nicely towards next year’s World Cup in Japan.
“We are getting some nice depth in the squad and we feel we are going to continue to improve as a team,” said Gatland, who has seen 18 players capped by his Welsh set-up since last June.
“We have made seven changes and we had a number of debates over who should play in different positions. In the end we went for Dan Biggar at outside half because of his experience.
“Defensively he is very good, strong and he’s good in the air. There was some very lively debate about the No 10 position, so it is a nice place for us to be in.
“It is the same situation in the back three and the back row. We are in a much stronger position than we were two or three years ago in terms of depth in the squad and it is nice to have those selection dilemmas.”
One of biggest selection headaches came in the back row, where Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau remain from last weekend’s win over Italy and Josh Navidi returns. It means Aaron Shingler has to be content with a seat on the bench, while Ross Moriarty hasn’t made the squad.
“In the last two years of the championship there have been two significant away wins. One was by England here in Wales last year and the other was Ireland in France this season,” said Gatland.
“That’s the difference between winning the championship and finishing third or fourth. It is important for us to play well at home, get a win and finish second.
“France have played well all competition. They played well against Ireland, in the first 40-50 minutes against Scotland and they were outstanding against England.
“They are direct, a good defensive team and are going to be hard for us to break down. It is going to be a really close encounter and a very physical game.
“Our record over the past 10 years has been pretty good against France. We’ve won seven of the last 10 and last year was the first we’d lost in six seasons.
“It is about working their pack, keeping the ball on the park and working through lots of phases. It is all about trying to take the legs from them.
“It is the model that Scotland used. The Scots were under a lot of pressure in the first 40-50 minutes and then kept playing. The French team ran out of a bit of steam, although they have improved and certainly played for the full 80 minutes against England.
“We have got to be prepared to go through a little bit of pain in terms of keeping the pressure on them and wearing down their forwards.”
Wales: L Halfpenny (Scarlets); G North (Northampton Saints), S Williams (Scarlets), H Parkes (Scarlets), L Williams (Saracens), D Biggar (Ospreys), G Davies (Scarlets); R Evans (Scarlets), K Owens (Scarlets), T Francis (Exeter Chiefs), C Hill (Dragons), AW Jones (Ospreys, captain), J Tipuric (Ospreys), J Navidi (Cardiff Blues), T Faletau (Bath)
Replacements: E Dee (Dragons), N Smith (Ospreys), S Lee (Scarlets), B Davies (Ospreys), A Shingler (Scarlets), A Davies (Scarlets), G Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), S Evans (Scarlets)