Six Nations 2023: Warren Gatland says Ireland opener 'a free hit' for Wales as 'buzzing' England prepare for debut under Steve Borthwick
Six Nations 2023: Warren Gatland says Ireland opener is a 'free hit' for Wales; Finlay Bealham deserves Ireland chance, Andy Farrell says; Ellis Genge: England squad buzzing under Steve Borthwick; | Scotland's Richie Gray taking heart from recent games against England
Last Updated: 04/02/23 12:55pm
We hear from all four camps ahead of Saturday's Six Nations opening weekend, as Wales host Ireland in Cardiff and England face Scotland at Twickenham...
Gatland: Ireland clash a 'free hit' for us | Farrell: 'No such thing in Test rugby'
Wales boss Warren Gatland has claimed Saturday's Six Nations opener between Wales and Ireland at the Principality Stadium is a "free hit" for the hosts.
Marginal title favourites Ireland kick off their campaign against Wales, and arrive as the world-ranked No 1 team following a spell of sustained success that saw them claim a Test series triumph against the All Blacks in New Zealand, beat South Africa and Australia and also land a Six Nations Triple Crown.
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Wales have claimed four successive Six Nations victories at Ireland's expense on home soil, while the Gatland factor also cannot be ignored.
His second stint as Wales head coach begins just over three years after the first one ended. When he last held the post between 2008 and 2019, Wales won four Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams and reached two World Cup semi-finals.
"I suppose the free hit for us is that the expectation and pressure is on them (Ireland) to win as favourites," Gatland added.
"It hasn't always been the easiest tag for Irish and Welsh teams in the past to carry going in as the favourites.
"You can get an upset because there is a huge amount of history and rivalry between those two nations and there has been a lot of close games.
"The secret, and I am sure Andy will be talking about this, is that you don't run away from that, you look to embrace the expectations of being the No 1 team in the world.
"That is definitely the attitude I would be taking if I was in the Ireland camp. I've had that experience in the past with Wales, having to handle the favourites' tag.
"There were probably one or two games in the autumn when they (Ireland) were under a little bit of pressure and they could have lost or it could have gone the other way, but they knew how to close the game down and manage it.
"We had that experience in 2018 and 2019 with Wales. We went through 14 matches unbeaten, and the thing about that is you've got a team that has composure, takes their moment and is able to manage games.
"That is probably the Irish team at the moment."
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has backed "massive personality" Finlay Bealham to fill the void left by star prop Tadhg Furlong.
Australia-born Bealham will make his full debut in the championship at the age of 31 by deputising at tighthead on the back of some standout displays for Connacht and a series of impressive Test outings from the bench.
Farrell is hopeful Furlong (calf) will be back in contention for next week's Round 2 clash with France but has full faith in his understudy, who has won 23 of his 27 international caps as a replacement.
"He's not quite ready," Farrell said of Furlong. "In fact, he's progressing pretty well but he's not quite there yet.
"He could possibly be there in the next few days or week or whatever, but we just think that Finlay deserves it as well.
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"He's playing some outstanding rugby at this moment in time. The last game he played, he scored a hat-trick, he's scrummaging very well, so he deserves a start.
"Tadhg will keep working away to hopefully be fit for the French game.
"Coming back from the autumn, or any camp he's been in with us, he (Bealham) has had that trust.
"He's a massive personality within our squad, he's very popular, but coming out of the autumn and how that translates, going back to Connacht and his performances since then has been top-drawer."
Farrell is happy the Principality Stadium roof will be closed for the encounter as he is eager for his in-form team to handle the loudest possible atmosphere.
However, the Englishman laughed off claims from rival Gatland that the clash is a "free hit" for Wales due to Ireland's position at the top of the world rankings.
Farrell said: "A free shot in Test match rugby? Where do you get them from?
"We'd love to be able to buy one of those. Maybe I'll buy him a free shot after the game.
"But there's absolutely no doubt that Warren will expect his side to win...and so do I. I expect our side to win.
"His past record shows what he's about in this competition. Finding a way to win has always been key to those teams, and we're very aware of that."
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Josh Adams, 13 George North, 12 Joe Hawkins, 11 Rio Dyer, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Tomos Williams; 1 Gareth Thomas, 2 Ken Owens (c), 3 Tomas Francis, 4 Adam Beard, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 6 Jac Morgan, 7 Justin Tipuric, 8 Taulupe Faletau
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Rhys Carre, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Dafydd Jenkins, 20 Tommy Reffell, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Owen Williams, 23 Alex Cuthbert
Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexon, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park; 1 Andrew Porter, 2 Dan Sheehan, 3 Finlay Bealham, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 5 James Ryan, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 7 Josh van der Flier, 8 Caelan Doris.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Tom O'Toole, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Bundee Aki.
Genge: Buzzing England squad excited under Borthwick | Gray keen to seize Six Nations chance: 'Previous results vs England give us belief'
England prop Ellis Genge says he is "buzzing" to be back working alongside Steve Borthwick - but has vowed to "kick on and create something new" ahead of his country's Six Nations opener against Scotland.
Under Borthwick's tutelage at Leicester, Genge, 27, skippered the Tigers to last season's Premiership title - nine years after they were last crowned kings of the English domestic game.
Borthwick transformed Leicester's fortunes in just two seasons as head coach and he has now been tasked with reversing England's slump following the dismissal of Eddie Jones.
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Kevin Sinfield followed Borthwick from Leicester as defence coach, while Tigers tighthead Dan Cole, 35, is back in the England set-up after three years away.
"I probably did think that I wouldn't be coached by him again, so I'm buzzing to be working back with Steve and Kev," said Genge, who moved to his home-town club Bristol following Leicester's championship triumph.
"But what's unspoken is that we don't want to rekindle that Leicester relationship. We want to kick on and create something new.
"We haven't been speaking about the good old days, even though it was only last year. We've been trying to kick on and master what we're trying to do here."
Genge, capped 43 times by England, having made his debut in 2016, added: "When he (Borthwick) was captain for England, it probably didn't end the way he wanted it to end.
"He spoke really well in the meeting the other day. When you hear a coach who has been in that role, numerous times, and ended up captain and then having it taken away from him, you know he really understands.
"A lot of coaches always say you've got to be better at this, got to be better at that. And Steve does that, but he looks at your super strength and says, 'That is what I want you to be incredible at'.
"He doesn't shout, he doesn't bawl, he's not one of those that's going to hang you out to dry in front of people. Don't get me wrong, he will do if he needs to. But most of the time he speaks calmly and he knows what he's trying to get across and he makes a very good point of doing that."
England will be back in front of the Twickenham crowd for the first time since they suffered a humbling 27-13 defeat to South Africa in November - Jones' last match in charge.
Genge concluded: "I don't think we're a desperate team but we are extremely keen.
"Eddie is an absolutely world-class coach. Rightly or wrongly, the regime has been changed. Whether or not it was on the back of that performance against South Africa, I can't speak on that.
"But what I can tell you is that we've had a great week's preparation, and we're excited to move forward."
On the Scotland side, Richie Gray is relishing this year's Six Nations as he admits there were times in recent seasons when he wondered if he would get to play in the tournament again.
The 33-year-old Glasgow lock has won 69 caps but has been on the periphery of the national team for much of Gregor Townsend's five-and-a-half-year reign.
Gray has made only three Six Nations appearances under the current head coach, with the last of those coming at home to Wales in February 2021.
However, after making a positive impression following a surprise recall to the squad for the recent autumn Tests, he is in line to start Saturday's Calcutta Cup match.
"Yeah, probably," he said, when asked if he thought occasions such as this weekend's Twickenham showdown were in the past for him. "For two years, maybe more than that, I wasn't really getting in.
"With the strength and depth across the second row, it's an area we're really strong at, so there were a few moments when you go, 'I might struggle to get back in here'.
"From that perspective, I'm very fortunate to be back here. I'm making the most of my time and enjoying it as much as I can as I'm very aware how quickly it can all pass by."
Gray was among the substitutes two years ago when Scotland won at Twickenham for the first time since 1983.
Townsend's team have claimed the Calcutta Cup in four of the last five years and Gray feels they can draw confidence from memories of 2021 as they bid to ensure Borthwick gets off to a losing start.
"In 2021 we won down there, albeit in very different circumstances with no crowd, but we take belief from that," he said. "Recent results against England have been favourable, but we're under no illusions as to how big the challenge is.
"They're under new management so will have a point to prove. They'll also be hurting from the autumn and will come out all guns blazing, so we'll need to match them.
"They've got quality across the board. If you look at Borthwick and how he played at Leicester with that traditional strong English pack who want to take you on up front. We're aware of that as a pack of forwards, it will be a challenge. But one I hope and believe we can match.
"That's the challenge, to do it when there are 80,000 getting behind their team. How do we react under that pressure? But I certainly believe we can."
England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Max Malins, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Ollie Hassell-Collins, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Jack van Poortvliet; 1 Ellis Genge, 2 Jamie George, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 4 Ollie Chessum, 5 Maro Itoje, 6 Lewis Ludlam, 7 Ben Curry, 8 Alex Dombrandt
Replacements: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Nick Isiekwe, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Ollie Lawrence, 23 Anthony Watson.
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Kyle Steyn, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Sione Tuipulotu, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ben White; 1 Pierre Schoeman, 2 George Turner, 3 WP Nel, 4 Richie Gray, 5 Grant Gilchrist, 6 Jamie Ritchie (c), 7 Luke Crosbie, 8 Matt Fagerson
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Jonny Gray, 20 Jack Dempsey, 21 George Horne, 22 Blair Kinghorn, 23 Chris Harris