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'They'd have made me Prince of Wales after some games but beheaded me the next week'

Former Wales wing Shane Williams is worried about Ireland’s kicking game.

THREE SIX NATIONS titles – two of them Grand Slams – would probably be enough to earn a coach legendary status in most Six Nations countries.

But former Wales wing Shane Williams smiles knowingly when he’s asked if Warren Gatland has the universal love of the Welsh.

Some haven’t been totally won over and Williams knows the feeling.

Warren Gatland before the game Gatland has had major successes with Wales. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

“We’re probably the most fickle nation ever, I can assure you,” says Williams. “There were times when they’d have made me Prince of Wales after some games but beheaded me the next week! That’s the Welsh for you really.

“When we won the Grand Slam, everyone wanted to adopt Warren Gatland. We lose a few games and then we fall out of love with him and we’re looking for someone else to come in. That’s something Warren has probably got used to over the years, how fickle we can be.

“He’s been the most successful Welsh coach, definitely within my time, and he’s massively respected but you’ve got to do an awful lot to be adopted in Wales. The majority of Wales do love him, they do respect him, but that’s the nature of it.”

Gatland has seemingly grown to enjoy the challenge of being written off, with his leadership of the Lions in New Zealand last year being one of the latest examples – the tourists were written off as no-hopers before the Test series, only to draw with the All Blacks.

And Williams says Gatland’s return to Irish soil this week will likely bring out the best in him.

“Every time you play as a Welsh coach or player, you’re under pressure. Warren will be enjoying it, he has spent time here and knows some of the lads he is playing against. He’s up against Joe Schmidt, who is one of the very best, very tactically shrewd, so it’s a great match-up.

“The players match up very evenly and the coaches are both experienced, world-class coaches. Warren will be looking forward to coming over here and upsetting a few Irish people, that’s for sure.”

Shane Williams Dublin Pub, Paddy Cullen’s will be known as “Shane Williams” in honour of the Welsh legend for the Ireland v Wales game. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Wales’ more expensive style of rugby this season has won Gatland and his assistant coach Rob Howley a few new admirers, with Williams being very positive about how the attacking game plan suits the players in this Welsh squad.

He sees the Welsh defence under Shaun Edwards as another reason for optimism ahead of the clash against Ireland on Saturday, although he has concerns about the kicking contest in Dublin.

England had major success with their kicking tactics in Cardiff two weekends ago, and Williams can see changes for Wales due to the Irish threat in this department.

“Ireland’s kicking game is one of the best in world rugby,” says Williams. “When Johnny Sexton isn’t kicking the ball either way, you’ve got Conor Murray, who is one of the best box kickers of the ball.

“That’s going to be tough so Wales are going to have to be on their toes, especially the back three, which is why I think Warren might bring a bit of experience back into the fold, whether it be Liam Williams or George North or perhaps both.

“It’s a huge game against the best kicking game from a nine and 10 in world rugby.”

Williams highlights the strength of Rob Kearney in this area as another concern, while he speaks effusively about Keith Earls’ current form and work rate for Ireland.

Rob Kearney Williams thinks Rob Kearney could be key. Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

And yet, Ireland’s back three could contain a less experienced player who Williams believes Wales may look to target.

Jacob Stockdale is still learning at this level and Williams can see the Ulsterman and centre Chris Farrell, favourite to take over at outside centre from Robbie Henshaw, as possible weaknesses in Welsh eyes.

“Every player’s got a weakness, even Johnny Sexton I think. It’s always the case when you get an inexperienced player or a youngster coming in that the press will be talking about it and the pressure is coming on – these are the ones you sometimes target.

“It’s a fine line between success and failure in international rugby and you’ve got to look for your cracks and faults. It can backfire sometimes, when you get a less experienced player come in and he scores three tries against you.

“These younger players, who perhaps haven’t played as much international rugby, can get caught out of position a little bit or get over-awed by it. I’m sure Warren will try and target these players.

“Having said that, Wales have got a few relatively inexperienced players in the squad but that’s why I think someone like George North will be involved. You’ve got to take any cracks you can see, any player where you think ‘this occasion might be a little too big for him.’”

Guinness has partnered with well-known Dublin pub Paddy Cullen’s to change its name to “Shane Williams” on 24 February as a nod to the Welsh legend and to create a new ‘Welsh’ ‘home from home’ destination for a pre-match pint. All fans will be welcome whatever their jersey!

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Murray Kinsella

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