Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Gatland drops under-par Phillips

Mike Phillips has been dropped to the bench for the France clash
Mike Phillips has been dropped to the bench for the France clash

Wales boss Warren Gatland pulled no punches after dropping scrum-half star Mike Phillips for Friday's crunch RBS 6 Nations clash against France in Cardiff.

Phillips, who has won 82 caps, made his international debut in 2003 and was the British and Irish Lions Test number nine against Australia last summer, will be on the bench for a game Wales must win to keep alive their title hopes.

Phillips makes way for full Test debutant Rhys Webb following Wales' 26-3 drubbing by Ireland 11 days ago, while wing George North moves to outside centre, Liam Williams wears the number 11 shirt and fit-again lock Luke Charteris replaces Andrew Coombs.

"W e just felt the team needed a change," Gatland said.

"We weren't happy with Mike's performance against Ireland, and we just felt it was an opportunity for Rhys Webb.

"We released Rhys back to the Ospreys on the weekend for some game time, and I thought he played well. It is a great opportunity for him.

"(Phillips) probably just got a little bit confrontational with a one-on-one with (Ireland scrum-half) Conor Murray, and he was yellow-carded as well towards the end of the game.

"It is probably an opportunity for him to reflect on his performance. That is why we have put him on the bench and given Rhys a chance.

"The fact that Mike has been probably our first choice for a long time, it is important that we give someone else an opportunity there in that position to stake a claim and give us some depth in that role as well.

"He (Phillips) always responds well to a challenge, and we are expecting him to put his disappointment behind him a little bit, work hard and if he gets a chance on Friday night that he comes on, is composed and calm and plays what is in front of him.

"Probably one of his attributes is his competitiveness, and it is probably a weakness as well."

There are many who will feel that double Grand Slam winner Phillips has been made a fall guy for Wales' heaviest Six Nations loss since 2006.

Others, though, will point to him being largely ineffective during the current Six Nations campaign and that an in-form Webb, whose previous Wales appearances have all been as a replacement, deserves his chance.

"For us, it is a chance to give someone else an opportunity, someone who is different to Mike as a player," Gatland added.

" We don't want him (Webb) to be the same as Mike Phillips. We want him to be what Rhys Webb is good at doing.

"I 've spoken to him earlier in the campaign about not going to try and emulate Mike. He has got to be his own man and play to his own strengths."

North, whose previous 37 caps were all won as a starting wing, answers a midfield injury SOS.

Gatland is without the services of Scott Williams, Jonathan Davies and Ashley Beck because of injuries, so he faced an apparent choice between North and James Hook to feature alongside Roberts, but Hook remains on the bench.

And it had been thought Gatland might tinker with the back row, handing Justin Tipuric a start and moving skipper Sam Warburton from openside to blindside flanker, but he has retained the starting trio of Dan Lydiate, Warburton and Taulupe Faletau that was on duty in Dublin.

Reflecting on the Dublin aftermath, Gatland said: " We have had some really honest discussions with a few other players in terms of there being a chance of putting the disappointment from Ireland behind us and for some of those players to redeem themselves.

"We are well aware in the last game that a few guys were short of matches, and as a forward pack, we just didn't front up. They will hopefully make amends for that on Friday night.

"There is no doubt the guys were disappointed, and we have spoken about how we respond."

Warburton, meanwhile, has echoed Gatland's fierce sense of determination to put things right as Wales aim to climb back into the Six Nations title race.

" I watched the (Ireland) game back in quite a lot of detail," Warburton said.

"They came at us at lineout time and at the breakdown. Our ball retention wasn't good enough in the tackle. I think the forwards were largely to blame for that.

"It is hard to ask the backs to do much when we are not really delivering up front. We didn't turn up that day.

"All we can do now is just focus on each game, and it has just got to be about beating France on Friday. That is the only target."

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