The ‘few areas’ where Gatland felt Wales improved in latest loss

Warren Gatland refused to blame off-field contractual shenanigans in Wales for Saturday’s most recent Championship defeat. The Welsh have not lost their first three games in the Six Nations since 2007 but they now travel to Italy on March 11 in what is effectively a decider between the only two sides to win a game in 2023.

The Welsh are now looking to avoid that dubious title, although the 10-20 third-round defeat by England wasn’t bad in the eyes of the manager, who was back at the helm after Wayne Pivac was sacked in December.

As Gatland previously took over, his arrival was immediately transformative as Wales became Grand Slam champions in 2008. That dizzying feat was not repeated, however, and his musings were bleak following his defeat on February 3rd.

Wales have undoubtedly been competitive and have improved greatly since their last capitulation in Scotland. Here they kept England waiting until the 75th minute before the result was final, but the sobering result was another L against their name in a campaign they haven’t really shot yet.

“We’re critical of ourselves because we’ve caused ourselves a lot of problems by not being accurate at key moments and that’s what friendly rugby is all about,” Gatland began, trying to make sense of it all now that Wales are zero is three.

“When you’re in this arm wrestling, you have to stay in this fight and it’s about being specific. We’ve talked about being hard on ourselves in areas where we need to improve. There have been improvements in this performance, but there is still work to be done. I thought Joe Hawkins did well and Mason (Grady) in his first international, we defended well at times.

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“We probably need to create a little more width in attack. We’ll continue to work on that and the transition from defense or free-kick to attack requires a bit of work. These are areas that we can focus on going forward.

“Like I said there were a number of things we were happy with and had improved and when we came in at half-time we thought we were in this game, let’s stick to arm wrestling. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re going in the right direction.”

Referring to the threatened players’ strike in Wales, which was only halted on Wednesday night following crisis talks with the WRU, Gatland added: “We have found no excuses for what happened during the week. Getting up and watching an England-Wales game isn’t difficult. The week was challenging. We recognize and understand that, but we didn’t find any excuses.”

As for the prospect of what is likely to be the final fourth-round playoff for the Italians, the coach mused: “The last thing you want is to get a wooden spoon. That has to be our focus. Part of this Six Nations is about thinking about the next six or seven months as well.

“We have some older, more experienced players who are still holding their hand up and we have some talented young players who need some time. We probably don’t have that group in the middle, players with 30, 40 caps. We’ll try to get married, they’ll think about it.

“Experience can’t be trained and that was part of the conversation I had with Joe Hawkins during the week. He wasn’t happy with his game against Scotland, made a few mistakes. But I thought he made a good game and improved from us today which gave him the confidence to go out and play. He’s a player who’s getting better and better, he just needs more time in the middle.”

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Skipper Ken Owens said of the upcoming Roman voyage: “Every game in a Welsh jersey has to be won. I am not hiding from this fact. We haven’t won a game yet, so we will put pressure on ourselves to win.”

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for him after the defeat by England. “I’m proud of the boys, we played up front,” he emphasized. “There was a lot of good stuff out there, the energy, the pace of work, I can’t question that. A bit of accuracy in certain areas but we’ve been training well over the last two weeks.

“With everything that happened off the field, we worked hard and put in a shift. We drew a line in the sand on Wednesday and we don’t have that as an excuse. We’re disappointed that we lost a friendly because we had an opportunity to put more points on the board and we didn’t do that, but I thought it was a definite step forward in what we did as a group want to reach.”

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