The threat of a strike has divided the Wales squad and created tension among players, says head coach Warren Gatland

The threat of a strike has divided the Wales squad and has caused tension among players, says Warren Gatland…

Warren Gatland has admitted a “significant rift” in the Wales squad over whether to strike in the Six Nations match against England was a major factor in his side’s poor form.

Sportsmail revealed last month that Wales players were considering withdrawing from a match against their fiercest rivals to address contractual and financial uncertainty in the Welsh game.

Eventually a compromise was reached and the match against England took place. But the chaos off the pitch continues to distract attention from Wales’ performances in the Championship.

After reuniting the team for Saturday’s trip to Italy, Gatland said: “Things that were going on off the pitch certainly had an impact.

“There was a pretty significant split in the group over which way to go (to hit or not) and I think it definitely caused some tension in the group for a few weeks.

Warren Gatland says the player's threat of a strike has caused a

Warren Gatland says the player’s threat of a strike has caused a “significant rift” in his team

“Time was a healer. It was definitely quite chaotic, which is understandable because people have different opinions. I don’t have a problem with that, but it can cause tension at times, and on reflection, it’s definitely happened to guys who held strong views one way or another.

“I think things have calmed down in the last few weeks. Probably the best reflection of this was the comments Justin Tipuric made to the group in terms of their body language.

“There were important moments in the game against England where our players didn’t celebrate.

“When I look back and see that we didn’t do it against England, that probably reflects where we were as a group.”

Sportsmail understands that Wales’ older and more experienced players have been in strike negotiations with the Welsh Rugby Union. But not every team member was keen to retire from the England game, which meant there were conflicting opinions on the best course of action.

Two weeks after the strike was reversed, the fact remains that around 90 Welsh players whose contracts expire at the end of the season are still unable to sign new ones.

With the drama going on, Wales has some serious work to do. After defeats against Ireland, Scotland and England, Gatland’s men know they will have to beat Italy to avoid the wooden spoon.

Wales were the last to finish bottom of the Six Nations table after losing all their matches in 2003. Repeating the scenario and failing in Rome would be unthinkable for Gatland.

The England match took place after a compromise was reached with the Welsh players

The England match took place after a compromise was reached with the Welsh players

“It’s a new experience,” said the New Zealander of his team’s goalless streak this year.

“We’ve been disappointed with the results so far and it’s hard for me to take it because it’s the first time I’ve lost three games in the Six Nations to Wales.

“We also had a lot of things off the pitch, but there are no excuses.”

Gatland made six changes for England’s Welsh side for Italy. Louis Rees-Zammit is on the bench and Rhys Webb is making his first Six Nations start since 2017 in the half of the scrum.

Dan Biggar was supposed to start from the first half, but a back injury in practice means Owen Williams is still 10th. Williams will be scoring with starting center Joe Hawkins, the backup quarterback.

Gatland has no choice but to continue giving youth a chance in Wales. Rookies Hawkins, Mason Grady, Rio Dyer, Dafydd Jenkins and Jac Morgan will start at the Stadio Olimpico.

There is no room for veteran Alun Wyn Jones.

Asked if Wales will have to go through short-term pain to reap the long-term benefits as their younger players develop at international level, Gatland added: “That’s definitely the thinking at the moment.

“We know we have to go through this process. We try to keep some experience around the younger players. We see some talent. One thing I’ve always said is that you can’t train experience.

Louis Rees-Zammit drops to the bench as one of six substitutions for England's defeated side

Louis Rees-Zammit drops to the bench as one of six substitutions for England’s defeated side

Sometimes young players make mistakes and you have to let them. They learn by playing at the highest level and they take that knowledge from international rugby.

“So for a lot of them, we have to give them time inside.”

Like Wales, Italy have lost all three Six Nations matches so far but are also improving rapidly. Italy will be without star Ange Capuozzo this weekend after suffering a shoulder injury.

Harlequins’ Tommy Allan replaces Capuozza – who set up Italy’s win over Wales in Cardiff last year – at full-back in the Azzurri side.


Italy: Tommy Allan; Edoardo Padovani, Juan Ignacio Brex, Tommaso Menoncello, Pierre Bruno; Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Danilo Fischetti, Giacomo Nicotera, Simone Ferrari, Niccolo Cannone, Federico Ruzza, Sebastian Negri, Michele Lamaro (Captain), Lorenzo Cannone

Spare parts: Luca Bigi, Federico Zani, Marco Riccione, Edoardo Iachizzi, Giovanni Pettinelli, Manuel Zuliani, Alessandro Fusco, Luca Morisi

Wales: Liam Williams; Josh Adams, Mason Grady, Joe Hawkins, Rio Dyer; Owen Williams, Rhys Webb; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens (Captain), Tomas Francis, Dafydd Jenkins, Adam Beard, Jac Morgan, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau

Spare parts: Scott Baldwin, Gareth Thomas, Dillon Lewis, Rhys Davies, Tommy Reffell, Tomos Williams, George North, Louis Rees-Zammit

Judge: Damon Murphy (Australia)

Commencement: 2:15 PM, Saturday

Premises: Olympic Stadium in Rome

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