Home holds no fears for Wales's Howley
EDINBURGH (AFP) –
Interim Wales head coach Rob Howley insisted the pressure of a home crowd would help, rather than hinder, his side when they faced England in a likely Six Nations Championship decider at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Defending Grand Slam champions Wales remained in title contention with a 28-18 win against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday.
That took them level on points with table-toppers England, who continue their Grand Slam bid against Italy at Twickenham on Sunday.
Should England, who’ve never lost a Test to Italy, maintain their winning streak they will head to Cardiff this coming Saturday looking for a tournament clean sweep at the Millennium, where Wales have lost their last five matches.
“We’ve got the best supporters in world rugby — I’m sure that will be a help,” said former Wales scrum-half Howley, in temporary charge while Warren Gatland is seconded to the British and Irish Lions for their tour of Australia later this year.
“I’m not worried about playing at the Millennium Stadium.
Howley, looking ahead to the England match, added: “It’s one of the biggest games our coaches and players can be involved in. If England do what we expect them to do tomorrow (Sunday) they will be coming to our stadium, our supporters, trying to win the Grand Slam.
“We had a great experience when we won the Triple Crown (the prize for when one of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales beats all the other Home Nations in a single Championship season) in England last year and they will back themselves coming to the Millennium Stadium.
“I’m just looking forward to preparing this week for a mammoth game.”
Meanwhile, interim Scotland coach Scott Johnson, who had several seasons in Welsh rugby at both club and national level, including a brief stint as caretaker Wales boss in 2006, reckoned his former side could yet retain their title.
“I’ll be interested to see how England go after the Italy match and what the points difference is, because that will put a pressure on how sides play,” Johnson said.
“If the points difference comes back down to the wire a little bit, I like this Welsh side. It’s a nice balance and they can grind out a game.
“It’s a good finale to the tournament, I just wish we were part of it,” added the Australian, whose Scotland team suffered a 38-18 first-up loss to England.
“It will be a quality game and it will go a long way to determining positions in the Lions squad.”
At Murrayfield, Wales hooker Richard Hibbard scored the only try, his first at Test level, in a match featuring an international record 18 penalty attempts at goal.
Full-back Leigh Halfpenny kicked 23 points, despite missing three penalties in a row, with all of Scotland’s scores coming from the boot of scrum-half Greig Laidlaw.
This was Wales’ third straight victory, all of them on the road, since their title defence began with a 30-22 defeat by Ireland in Cardiff and it meant they’d won five successive away matches in the Championship for the first time.
Saturday also saw the return to Wales’ starting XV of Sam Warburton, their captain when they won the Grand Slam last season.
He missed Wales’ 16-6 win away to France through injury and, after Howley opted not to change a winning side, was reduced to coming off the bench in the 26-9 victory against Italy in Rome.
Even though Warburton was involved from the kick-off on Saturday, Ryan Jones — who suffered a shoulder injury during the match — retained the captaincy.
But openside flanker Warburton, whose form as well as fitness has been an issue in recent weeks, showed no sign of disappointment during an excellent all-round display.
“In attack and defence, Sam Warburton was outstanding,” said Howley. “He showed world-class qualities, pressure on the ball and vital turnovers.
“I’m delighted for Sam because he’s had a tough time the last five to six weeks, so it’s good to see him enjoying his rugby.”