Gatland rings in the changes ahead of Six Nations clash with France
Warren Gatland has surprised many with his half-back pairing for the Six Nations game at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
The Welsh coach has decided to drop scrum-half Mike Phillips to the bench following his poor performance in Wales 26-3 defeat against Ireland.
He has been replaced by Ospreys player Rhys Webb who will cap a remarkable return from injury after undergoing knee surgery barley nine months ago.
The 25-year-old impressed Gatland in the part he played in Ospreys’ 75-7 Pro12 win over Treviso, and he believes that he deserves his chance to stake a claim for the position.
Given that Webb is paired with Dan Biggar when playing for Ospreys, many thought it logical that Gatland would give them the chance to link up on the international stage.
Their understanding could have been a major asset in what has become a must win match for the defending champions to keep their title hopes alive.
But Gatland has once again decided to overlook Biggar, who has yet to be involved in this season’s tournament, and he will once again take his place on the bench come Friday evening.
Instead, Webb will link up with Rhys Priestland who has started both of Wales’ opening Six Nations matches and was part of their Grand Slam winning side in 2012.
It looks as if Gatland believes making two major changes would carry too many risks, and it will be interesting to see if Webb and Priestland can build up an immediate understanding in such a key position.
The other change sees Northampton’s George North move to outside centre with Scarlets’ Liam Williams now out on the left wing.
It’s a decision which has largely been forced upon Gatland after losing Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams and Owen Williams to injury.
North’s partnership with Jamie Roberts is going to be vital as Wales try to stop the directness of France centre Mathieu Bastareaud and the destructive running of Wesley Fofana, who is 12/1 with Coral to score the first try.
At 6ft 4ins and weighing in at 17st, 21-year-old North looks to have the ideal physique for the role, but his speed and attacking prowess on the wing will be sorely missed.
However, the changes will certainly add further spice to the contest which sees controversial referee Alain Rolland taking charge.
The Irish official provoked outrage in Wales by sending off captain Sam Warburton for a so-called tip-tackle on France wing Vincent Clerc during their 2011 World Cup 9-8 semi-final defeat at Auckland’s Eden Park.
Despite concerns from Welsh fans over how he will handle the match, and the changes made by Gatland to the starting line-up, Wales are the strong 4/6 favourites with Coral to win the match. France can be backed at 11/8 and the draw at 20/1
In the outright betting, France are 13/8 favourites to be crowned Six Nations champions, narrowly ahead of Ireland (15/8). England are next best in at 5/2, while Wales can be backed at 10/1.