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Ringing the changes; SIX NATIONS 2009 As Wales look to return to winning ways in Italy, Delme Parfitt examines Warren Gatland's most radical selection so far.

Byline: Delme Parfitt

ALL the talk was expected to be about Henson, Hook and Peel... but it is the shot across the bows of captain Ryan Jones that emerged as the real talking point of yesterday's Wales team announcement.

Who would have predicted just two weeks ago that Warren Gatland would be sitting at his long table holding court with the media alongside a new skipper in Alun Wyn Jones?

Such a situation would have suggested either an injury to his Ospreys namesake or something altogether more crisis-inducing.

And yet there is no crisis in Welsh ranks as they prepare for the task of keeping alive what has now become a championship dream rather than a Grand Slam one.

Instead, Alun Wyn's elevation, coupled with Ryan's demotion to the bench, is the result of one solitary defeat, the 21-16 reverse to France in Paris that gave Gatland his first taste of Six Nations disappointment since he took the Wales job little more than a year ago.

There was no lasting disgrace in what unfolded in the French capital last Friday night. God knows, Welsh rugby has been through worse.

But the coach's decision to make such wholesale changes - 10 in all - to the 22 for Rome is an indication of the just how angry the failure at the Stade de France left him.

In analysing the depth of his ire, the captaincy change must be the first port of call.

No coach drops his skipper easily, no matter what the circumstances.

Let us remember, this is a Lions year, Jones has already missed the first match of the championship and his prospects for South Africa - at least his captaincy prospects could be dealt a severe blow by this turn of events.

Jones' performance against Les Bleus may well have accounted for him in the eyes of Gatland.

He missed tackles in the build up to both French tries - more culpably on Imanol Harinordoquy for the Thierry Dusautoir score before half-time - though many thought his contribution otherwise was wholehearted and industrious.

However, perhaps more tellingly Jones could have paid the price for Wales' collective failure to adapt to changing circumstances in the heat of battle, and for the flustered decision making in all departments of the team that led to an uncharacteristically high error count.

When Gatland first arrived here, he grabbed hold of a squad feeling sorry for itself and, together with Shaun Edwards, shook it to its foundations with a vice like grip on strategy and structure.

But, having achieved so much so quickly, he has sought to loosen that grip somewhat in his second season.

The theme since last autumn has been one of empowerment, of trying to hand the senior players a greater say in the direction the team is taking.

As a New Zealander, Gatland is used to providing talented players with a framework and allowing them to operate within it.

What odds Paris showed him that too many of his current crop who he wants to be key figures in that process may not be ready for it just yet?

What's the betting Gatland looked at the video when the dust had settled on his first tournament defeat in the job and found the content more x-rated than he had at first feared?

I'm talking about Lee Byrne continuing to kick in-field when France's back three were lying in wait and revelling in running it back.

If Wales' lineout is so improved - and it is - why not gamble on one or two touchfinders and back yourselves to pinch opposition ball?

I'm talking about Wales continually getting pinged at the breakdown during the third quarter against the French, but failing to source the problem or rectify it quickly enough.

I'm talking about individual errors like Mike Phillips trying to run the ball out of his own 22, but heading straight into his teammate Matthew Rees to concede a scrum from which France would ultimately score, something which in fairness Gatland mentioned himself.

All are the kind of misdemeanours he knows have to be weeded out if Wales are to go where he wants to take them.

TCUP, Clive Woodward used to call it in his England heyday - thinking clearly under pressure.

Gatland wants his players to take responsibility for that, but it starts with the right generalship from senior players, and this could be the area where Alun Wyn Jones looks to exert his influence. So just what will the new captain be overseeing at Stadio Flaminio?

Even though Wales have traditionally had problems going away to face the Azzurri, Gatland confessed that had the opposition been different he probably would not have been quite so radical with his selection.

And the sheer volume of changes at least makes for some alternative taking points.

The re-introduction of Dwayne Peel and James Hook at half-back and the partnership of Gavin Henson and Jamie Roberts - Gatland's long-awaited experiment - should provide fresh impetus to the back line.

The heavyweight Roberts reverts to outside-centre and his work in tandem with the guile and craft of his more celebrated partner should be productive if the Blues man can be put into the sort of space that allows him to build up enough steam to hit Italian defensive barriers at pace.

There will be howls of complaint from some quarters about the culling of Tom Shanklin who has been one of the stand-out performers up to now. Fair point.

Gatland did stress Shanklin has not been ousted on form, but it has been clear from day one of the Six Nations that the coach wanted to see a Henson-Roberts axis and he has finally got his wish.

The Hook and Peel choices came as no real shock, but it would equally be no real eye-opener if Phillips and Stephen Jones return for the Ireland clash.

Jones has done little over the course of three games this far to warrant exclusion and you sense it will require something absolutely vintage from his rival to keep him on the sidelines.

Peel is another whose stock has fallen to the point where he could well need a blistering contribution to hold onto the jersey from a player whose blue-collar vitality has always won Gatland's favour Up front, it appears a bomb has been put under the entire operation.

In the front row it really does look like a question of handing an opportunity to hitherto fringe figures with John Yapp, Huw Bennett and Rhys Thomas coming in for the so far excellent unit of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones.

And we will discover much about the consistent Test reliability of the in-comers from what happens in this one.

At second-row there is an opportunity for Dragons beanpole Luke Charteris at the expense of Ian Gough, but again you suspect Charteris will need something of rare quality to be named for the Ireland Test. Which leaves us with just the back row.

It is difficult to feel comfortable about any combination that does not contain the incomparable Martyn Williams.

But Gatland's desire to nurse the Blues man through to the 2011World Cup necessitates rest at certain stages - and this is one of them.

However the recall of former lineout leader Jonathan Thomas at blindside is heartening and you feel that he will be awfully hard to prise out of the shirt if he shows he is fully over the disc trouble that has curtailed his contribution up to now.

Though harder to fathom perhaps is Dafydd Jones' occupation of the openside berth given that he is not blessed with abundant pace.

Andy Powell remains in situ at No 8, even though after France he rather than Ryan Jones was presumed by many to be the one heading for the drop.

It shows that all is not always what it seems.

Look beneath the surface and sometimes you'll be surprised at what you find. Maybe that's what happened with Mr Gatland.

CAPTION(S):

OUTS AND INS: Ryan Jones has been relieved of his starting place and the captaincy to face Italy, while Gavin Henson (inset left) returns for the trip to Rome Pictures: Getty Images
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 6, 2009
Words:1360
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