Warren Gatland raises Wales stake by playing club card against England

• Poor Premiership form in Europe may see England suffer, says coach
• England’s Ben Youngs disagrees: ‘You cannot make the comparison’

Warren Gatland has ensured a high temperature for Wales’s second match, against England at Twickenham, by suggesting Eddie Jones’s defending Six Nations champions may suffer for the poor performances of Premiership clubs in the European Champions Cup this season.

Only Saracens made it to the quarter-finals, with the holders claiming the final place because Ulster lost at Wasps. Northampton, Leicester and Harlequins finished bottom of their pools and only Sarries and Bath won more matches than they lost. All the English clubs were beaten at least once at home.

“I look back on the form of English clubs in Europe and think that when they have five teams in the quarter-finals, you are looking at a pretty strong England squad,” said Gatland at the Six Nations launch. “You look now and they have one club, which qualified in eighth place.

“There starts to be some question marks from my point of view and, I hope, my players. It gives you a bit of confidence and self-belief. We have a number of players from the Scarlets who became the third team to qualify for the quarter-finals after losing their first two matches, outstanding in Bath and then showing character against Toulon. They came into the squad with a spring in their step and that filters through to everyone else.

“I can understand it from Eddie’s point of view because players are probably quite happy to get away from their clubs because they are coming back into an environment in which they are used to winning. They can mentally park their club form.”

Dylan Hartley disagreed with Gatland. “We are at the launch of the Six Nations, not the Champions Cup,” said the England and Northampton captain. “We are an international side whose form is good and we want to be a better team than we were in November. We need to kick on and improve.”

Hartley was backed by the England scrum-half Ben Youngs, whose club, Leicester, also won one of their five Champions Cup matches, having reached the semi-finals two years ago. “English clubs may not have had the best of seasons in Europe but that is not a reflection of where we will be internationally,” said Youngs. “You cannot make the comparison. The Champions Cup is a great tournament but so tough to win and it is showing just how strong rugby in Europe is.

“What we have in England is huge strength in depth. We are a team that is about far more than 15 players, 23 or 32. I am just one of 100 who hopes to be involved in the World Cup next year. The Six Nations is a fantastic test of your squad as well as your resolve.”

Jones said the form of the Premiership clubs in Europe was irrelevant. All that mattered to him was the response of his players, who went into camp in Portugal at the start of last week. “If they come into camp and are enthusiastic, wanting to work hard, that is what we are looking for,” he said.

“Good players have good responses. Average players have average responses. Bad players have bad responses. We think we’ve got good players and will have a good response. The Champions Cup is irrelevant. Everything is about how you respond.”


Paul Rees

The GuardianTramp

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