The Phil Bennett Column – Rob Howley Is A Man Under Pressure

The Six Nations is about to start. Dai Sport columnist Phil Bennett says England should win it, but Wales could and the same goes for Ireland. France? They’re an insult to their past. Scotland? Improving, but not enough. Italy? The usual.

 

Rob Howley is a man under pressure but I still believe he has a one-in-three chance of winning the Six Nations with Wales.

Howley is under the cosh because so many fans were underwhelmed by the rugby served up by his team in the autumn.

I’ve got no issue with that. Supporters pay a lot of money to watch Test matches these days and so if they’re disgruntled – by a lack of flair and skill, more than poor results – it’s completely understandable.

Those sentiments have put Howley under the spotlight and I sense a fair degree of gloom in Wales going into this tournament.

But I actually think Wales are one of three sides I can see with a chance of lifting the trophy. The other two are England and Ireland.

France are a tragic shadow of their former selves, Scotland’s surge will not be enough to make them winners, while Italy will win a few pats on the head, maybe a game, but not much else.

I feel a little bit sorry for Howley. The WRU are always lukewarm about him, compared to their devotion to Warren Gatland. Rob has said there’s a bit of ‘Kiwi’ in his attitude, but perhaps he should copy their accent if he wants the full respect of his employers.

Rob Howley. Pic: Getty Images.

He is trying to adapt the way Wales play, to evolve the style and make them more attractive to watch – rigid patterns ingrained in players by Gatland himself.

But he has to do it at the same time as win matches and compete for the Six Nations title. Rightly, he doesn’t complain. That’s the deal.

When the matches start, the emphasis will be on winning and fans will be happy enough if Wales deliver on that front. Should they win in style, that will be a bonus.

I see Wales as possible champions because of their sequence of matches, with Italy away first and then England at home.

If Wales win in Rome, they can focus all their efforts on the visit of England to Cardiff. England are better than they have been for a long time, but there are weaknesses there, still, as Wales were able to exploit in that second-half comeback at Twickenham a year ago.

If Wales were to beat the champions, then the confidence and momentum might be enough to take Howley’s side to the title, although I wouldn’t think it would be a Grand Slam.

If England win, then I think they will regain their crown. Ireland, though, will beat them in Dublin and deny them another Slam.

Howley should pick his strongest available side to face the Italians, come home with the victory – and maybe a bonus point – and then stick with that same side to face England.

For me, that would mean starting with Dan Biggar at No.10, despite the pressing claims of Sam Davies.

Dan Biggar. Pic: Getty Images.

Biggar is not a Beauden Barrett type of running fly-half, but it’s a mistake not to recognise he could be more like that if that was the overall approach of the team.

We have seen him play that role for the Ospreys, but the edge he has over Davies is in the way he can control matches, tactically – particularly with his kicking game.

The Six Nations is all about control, seizing matches when they are tight, mastering often difficult conditions, navigating a way through in times of crisis. In those respects, Dan is still the man.

The back row is the other point of contention and I have seen it suggested by some that Sam Warburton should be left out.

I don’t agree. For me, Warburton has to play at No.6 because he is still the most effective Wales forward over the ball at the tackle area.

I would play him alongside Justin Tipuric on the openside, with Taulupe Faletau at No.8 if he’s fit and Ross Moriarty there if he isn’t.

England are my tip to win the title, but it will all come down to the two matches they have to play away from home – firstly, in Cardiff, then, in Dublin.

Scotland would be far more of a threat if Gregor Townsend were now in charge, but Glasgow will have the benefits of his talents as coach for a few more months and Scotland fans will have to wait.

As for France, they are still an insult to their heritage, a pale imitation of what they should really be about. Teams should fear France because of their potential to run you off the park, but no-one feels like that about them any more – and with good reason.

They are slow, unexciting, and pretty average – pretty much like their domestic games in the Top 14. I watch their rugby and think of Serge Blanco, Philippe Sella and all their other greats and I feel like weeping.

God knows what the French themselves must think.

At least Wales are trying to excite, trying to live up to their past glories, even if they haven’t got there yet.

In that regard, no-one sums up that struggle more than George North.

He has been so-so for so long. I know there is still huge talent within him – the kind of brilliance we saw for the Lions four years ago. At only 24, there has to be a way back to those levels for George.

My wish for this tournament is that after all his problems, this is the year.

 

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