Rob Howley has hailed Warren Gatland’s honesty and loyalty as the Wales head coach prepares for a final Six Nations showdown with England.
The fierce rivals go head to head in Cardiff on Saturday week, with both sides unbeaten after their opening two games.
There is a strong chance that the winner will go on to become Guinness Six Nations champions, potentially with a Grand Slam thrown in.
Wales head coach Gatland and his team of Howley, Shaun Edwards and Robin McBryde – together since a Six Nations opener against England in 2008 – will break up after the World Cup in Japan later this year.
Howley will join Gatland and Edwards in calling time on a Wales coaching stint that is so far highlighted by three Six Nations titles, two Grand Slams and a World Cup semi-final appearance.
“Warren is tactically astute about the game, he understands the dynamics of the coaching team and he understands about players and trying to get the best out of them,” Wales attack specialist Howley said.
“The loyalty he has shown to all of us in the coaching team has brought the best out of us as well.
“He backs his fellow coaches and he backs his players. He is a very honest person, which is his endearing quality.
“I have been fortunate to have him as a coach, and I have always said I learnt so much from him as a player when I was at Wasps.
“I was fortunate enough when he asked me to be involved as a coach, and I have continued to learn off him as a coach.
“I think the one thing which he always wants to be is challenged. When you stop allowing coaches and players to be challenging coaches, you stop growing individually as a coach.
“He is always willing to learn, and he teaches us as well in that he allows us to learn as well.”
While only Edwards, who will return to Rugby league as Wigan head coach next year, of the Wales coaching team currently has a confirmed post-World Cup job, Howley is laid-back about his future.
“I am of the viewpoint that what will be, will be,” he added.
“I want to enjoy this year. When you do have discussions, all of a sudden they become headlines, and they become distractions.
“I am purely focused on the Six Nations and Rugby World Cup. I would like to have some time off post-World Cup, and then in 2020 I want to be employed.”
The Gatland era only has a minimum of 11 Tests and, depending on their World Cup fortunes, a maximum 14 to run.
And Howley said: “I’m not one for looking too far back. I am task-orientated, and that means the next game.
“When I’m grey and old – I am grey now! – hopefully I will look back on the last decade with fond memories.
“We have achieved some fantastic success, and it would great for us to go out this year with a superb performance in the Six Nations and success at the World Cup.”
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England are reeling after front row colossus Mako Vunipola was ruled out of the remainder of the Six Nations by an ankle injury.
Vunipola hobbled off in the 44th minute of Sunday’s 44-8 demolition of France at Twickenham and a scan has revealed that he requires 10 weeks of rehabilitation that will be overseen by Saracens.
It is a hammer blow that clouds the countdown to a likely title decider against Wales in Cardiff on February 23.
Vunipola was named man of the match as Ireland were crushed 32-20 in Dublin on the opening weekend and he was superb against France until injury struck to his left ankle.
Eddie Jones has hailed the 28-year-old loosehead prop as world class due to his ability to make explosive impacts in defence and attack, improved scrummaging, work-rate and growing leadership role.
“It’s obviously very disappointing to lose Mako at this stage as he’s an important player for us, but it does provide an opportunity for the team to grow,” Jones said.
Vunipola also missed the entire autumn series due to a calf strain, giving Exeter’s Ben Moon his opportunity to break into the England team.
Moon and Ellis Genge have made one replacement appearance each so far in the Six Nations and are competing to fill the void.
Ben Youngs claims England have produced the greatest rugby of the Eddie Jones era in sweeping aside Ireland and France.
Emphatic wins in the opening two rounds of the Six Nations have set-up a title showdown with Wales in Cardiff on Saturday week that will place the Grand Slam in the winners’ sights.
Jones has masterminded 30 wins from 37 Tests as England head coach in a record that includes a Grand Slam, championship title and 3-0 series whitewash of the Wallabies in Australia.
But Youngs believes that by amassing 10 tries in dominant displays at the Aviva Stadium and Twickenham, the team is scaling new heights.
When asked if England are playing at the highest level of rugby under Jones, Youngs replied: “From what I remember since I’ve been involved with Eddie, yes.
Another great team effort, a joy to be involved with this team 🌹 thanks for everyone’s support pic.twitter.com/C2l5ABkxBe— Ben Youngs (@benyoungs09) 11 February 2019
“It’s probably not higher intensity, just more consistent within it. Maybe that’s maturity, personnel – I’m not sure.
“It’s certainly great fun out there. You can probably see it – from one to 23, guys are thriving and loving being part of the team.
“If you’re 30-8 up against France at half-time you are doing something right. There weren’t many mistakes.”
The biggest win over Les Bleus since 1911 has cranked up expectation surrounding the February 23 showdown in Cardiff as England look to continue their stunning start to World Cup year.
Wales are the only other Six Nations team with a 100 per cent record after posting wins against France and Italy.
“Wales have had a good run. We are going to embrace and enjoy the big two-week build-up,” Youngs said.
“This is what the championship is about – it always comes down to certain games.
“France was a championship decider, the same in a fortnight’s time. We will take every game as it comes but certainly, this one is hugely exciting.”
The only frustration to emerge from the Twickenham landslide was an ankle problem sustained by Mako Vunipola, with an update on the blockbusting loosehead prop’s condition expected in the coming days.
Second row Maro Itoje has an outside chance of being available against Wales as he continues his recovery from a knee ligament tear, but hooker Dylan Hartley will miss out again because of a similar injury.
While England rampage through the Six Nations, abject France are in freefall amid demands for Jacques Brunel to be sacked.
Morgan Parra, the country’s most capped scrum-half, has hinted at discord in the camp.
“I think that we are capable of doing what the English do, but are we working on this during training? I think we don’t work on it enough, even not at all,” Parra said.
“Yet these are very simple things that are today part of high-level rugby. We can do this. But do we work on it? No.”