JUSTIN Tipuric is primed to start for Wales against Italy a week on Saturday after Warren Gatland admitted Sam Warburton faced a battle to be fit for the Six Nations opener in Cardiff.
Gatland would obviously prefer to see his skipper taking the field in the opener, but Warburton hasn’t played since injuring a shoulder in November.
And while the Blues player is close to being ready to return, Gatland conceded that the odds were against him figuring in the starting line-up against the Azzurri — though a final decision would be left until next week.
“Probably he won’t be available for the Italian game,” said Gatland.
“We’ll just see how next week pans out.
“He hasn’t had a lot of rugby but he’s not going to be too far away.
“We’ve discussed that and he feels himself he might need a bit of rugby and it might be a game with the Blues.”
It isn’t as if Welsh cupboard is bare at openside, with the multi-skilled Tipuric in outstanding form this season, achieving more turnovers than anyone else (15) in the Heineken Cup group stages and putting in 72 tackles over the six games.
There are also the extras — the breaks, passes and interventions in the backline. When he plays his teams appear to have an extra back on the field as well as an additional forward.
“We’re lucky enough in that position,” said Gatland.
“Sam can play at six as well and we’ve got the quality of Justin Tipuric.
“It’s a pretty attritional position in terms of players picking up knocks and bangs and we’ve just got to make sure that Sam’s right and hopefully we won’t pick up too many injuries as the tournament goes on.”
The option of considering a fit Warburton at six is a live one with Ryan Jones injured and Dan Lydiate going through a bumpy time at Racing Metro.
Gatland values Lydiate’s defensive prowess hugely, but the former Dragon hasn’t had it easy this season, with Racing not doing enough to bring out the best in him, using him sometimes in a No. 7 jersey instead of exclusively at blindside.
The onus will be on the farmer’s son to show in training he can still come up with the piledriving tackling game that became his trademark before he suffered time out because of a major injury last season.
For every player, the incentive is to be part of a team attempting to create history by winning the championship outright three years in a row, a feat never before achieved.
“One of the things you can’t coach is experience and we think we have got a bit of that at the moment,” Gatland said.
“The other thing that is important from a coaching perspective is to have some players with X-factor, and we feel we have definitely got four or five players in the team that could potentially change a game, and it is nice to have that firepower.
“We’ve already achieved a lot but we are not satisfied with that. Hopefully, we can go through a period of real sustained success for Wales.
“When I first arrived, the success of the 1970s Wales teams was rammed down the players’ throats year after year. These players can leave behind a legacy of their own, and that is something we are conscious of.”
Gatland doesn’t believe his squad will be distracted by the ongoing political battle between the Welsh Rugby Union and the regions over funding, control and competitions.
“The dispute that is going on between the union and the regions is completely out of our control,” he added.
“It is nothing we can sort out as either coaches or players. You’ve got to let the powers-that-be sort that out. All we can do is concentrate on the training pitch and on what we do when we take the field. The whole focus is on doing well in this tournament.
“We think we are in great shape physically. We don’t think any team works harder than we do, and we pride ourselves on how hard we work and how hard we train.
“We know that if we get into a tough game, physically we are going to last for 80 minutes. I think that has definitely been a focus for us. We definitely know we are fitter than most teams in world rugby.”