The Wales head coach announced nine changes for the game against England this weekend from the side beaten in Scotland. He has brought back three players boasting more than 100 caps – Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau and Leigh Halfpenny – and handed a first cap to 20-year-old centre Mason Grady.
“I’m just happy things have been sorted and we can finally focus on preparing for Saturday. We had a meeting with the players to announce the team and said it’s an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and focus completely on preparing for England,” said Gatland.
“There won’t be any lack of motivation in getting up for the game, given the history and passion between Wales and England. I’m confident the guys will be ready.
“The focus needs to be purely on training well, drawing a line in the sand with what has happened and then bringing out the passion, history and expectation that comes with a Wales v England fixture.
“For both of us, this game is absolutely massive. We win on Saturday, and then we go away to Italy and France, we can finish the Six Nations on a real positive.
“For them, a loss on Saturday means they face a couple of challenging games against France and Ireland. It is definitely a huge game for both England and Wales.”
The game was officially declared “on” at 6.00pm on Wednesday night after lengthy negotiations between the players, the Professional Rugby Board and the Welsh Rugby Union over contracts.
“The players are pretty happy with the outcome and what’s going to happen moving forwards. I understand the regions are going to be offering full contracts starting from next week, which is brilliant,” he added.
“I think we owe it to ourselves to give a performance this weekend. I spent the first couple of games trying to get a real handle on where we were as a squad. I think I’ve now got a pretty good feel for that.
“There is a lot of work for us to continue to do, there are a lot of things we need to fix ourselves rather than looking at our opposition. You can’t give away 16 penalties in the first game and 19 in the second and think you’re going to win an international. That’s just unacceptable.
“We’ve got to tidy that up. Fixing a few of our issues will definitely go a long way to improving our performance. Back in 2019, we gave away four penalties and England had four line-outs.
“That’s the gold standard you want to be operating to shut an opposition down. The target is definitely to give away less than 10 penalties and limit England’s set-piece opportunities.”
Round 3 of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations championship will see Wales chasing a first win, while England will arrive having lost at home to Scotland and then beaten Italy at Twickenham.
“I see them being a bit like us, going through a little bit of a rebuilding phase in terms of having a new coaching set-up. Steve (Borthwick) is trying to find the best way forward,” said Gatland.
“He’s moved Owen Farrell back to No 10, and probably dispensed with the Smith/Farrell combination, and he’s gone for somebody a bit more robust in Ollie Lawrence to carry forward in midfield.
“We expect a lot of kicking from England, and I want to see where Leigh Halfpenny is at. I’m looking forward to seeing him playing because positionally, he is still probably one of the best defensive full backs in world rugby.
“Even though he is a not a tall man he is great in the air and his work rate in the backfield is exceptional. We expect them to kick a lot on Saturday and we have got to make sure we have got the tools to negate that and be prepared to make sure we stay in the battle.
“There are going to be times when it is going to be a kick battle and we need to ensure we aren’t the team that cracks first, and we don’t get too impatient. We have to make sure that when we do get opportunities, we are much more clinical than we have been in the first two games.”
As well as Halfpenny, Owen Williams will have a key part to play in the kicking strategy as he gets the nod to start at No 10 for the first time ahead of Dan Biggar.
“Owen has been around for a while now and he’s pretty experienced. There’s no question that his arrival at the Ospreys has seen an improvement in their performances,” said Gatland.
“His challenge is being able to handle the training load because he’s had a number of injuries over the years. He had a back issue last week that meant he couldn’t train, but he’s now fit and available – he’s taken full part in this week’s training.
“The big question for Owen is has he got the ability to handle the physicality and pace of international rugby now? He hasn’t experienced it for a while.
“We spoke about giving players an opportunity and outside half is probably one position at the moment where we are lacking some real experience and back-up to Dan. We’ve got Gareth Anscombe to hopefully come back from injury, but he has had a number of injuries over the last few years.
“Owen has had some injuries as well, but we have been pleased with the way he has been playing. He’s 100% fit and available, and this is a great chance for him.”
It is also a huge opportunity for another of the recent Wales U20 graduates, Cardiff Rugby centre Mason Grady. The 6ft 5in tall, 17st 4lb midfield powerhouse has made a big impact at regional level and joins forces with his former U20 teammate Joe Hawkins in a new look combination.
“We’ve been impressed by him – he’s still young, but he’s quick and brings some physicality. He’s got some fantastic attributes in terms of what he can bring to the game,” said Gatland.
“It’s a great opportunity for him. He and Joe (Hawkins) have played together before and it’s a pretty exciting and young midfield. We’ve brought back some experience in the squad to play alongside the younger faces.
“I’ve experimented against Italy in the past and been criticised for doing so, but it’s just the situation that we’re in. You can’t coach experience and it’s just a balancing act at the moment.
“I’m not clear about the best team at the moment, but going forward, over the next few games, and during World Cup camps and warm-up games, we’ll get a full picture of where we need to be.
“In some training sessions, some players have found the intensity that I’m looking for a bit of a challenge. They’re not far away but they’re not quite as good as they were in the past. When you hear comments
“We have to get to the level we were in the past, when other top international sides used to say: ‘this side is never going to go away, they’ll play for 80 minutes, they’re not going to give in’. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re working hard to get there.
“The players have been great, in terms of training volume. They’ve put their rugby heads on and actually trained pretty well. It’s just that there has been so much distraction from the meetings and stuff.
“You can’t measure the mental or psychological impact of that, or how that might affect them for the weekend. But from a rugby preparation point of view, they’ve been good.
“Fingers crossed, when the magnitude of the game kicks in – what this fixture means and its history – they’ll be up for it on Saturday.”