“WITH Clifford coming into the back row – I know what a quality player he is. We know a lot of quality is coming into that back row, irrelevant of experience.”
Irrelevant of experience. Those were the words of Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones at Thursday’s press conference when asked about Eddie Jones’ decision to hand Jack Clifford a Six Nations debut in Saturday’s match between the sides.
Normally this remark, uttered quickly amid a maelstrom of answers at a press conference, might pass without comment.
But in this case, Jones’ words seemed to be at odds with those of his coach.
Throughout the autumn internationals and the Six Nations thus far, the Number Ten debate has been a hot topic.
Dan Biggar still holds on to the jersey, but the public clamour for Sam Davies’ inclusion grows week on week – especially after his strong showing against Italy in week one.
When asked about Davies, Howley was typically fulsome in his praise.
“He played in the autumn and we are confident with Sam starting,” said the Wales coach.
“We spoke about experience in Italy, and the experience will come to the fore again against England.
“From a coach’s perspective, it’s one of the key ingredients when you are playing championship competition.
“The Six Nations and experience have counted for us on occasions.
“It’s up to us as coaches and players to bring that experience to the fore.”
Experience. Experience. Experience. That is the Howley mantra.
If George North succumbs to his injury, as rumoured, it seems likely that his place will be taken by Alex Cuthbert instead of Steff Evans.
Howley will opt for the experience of a man painfully out of form for the last four years, over the youngster who has been one of Wales’ top players this season.
Donald Trump’s paraphrased quote about Hilary Clinton springs to mind: She has experience – it’s just bad experience.
The problem for Sam Davies is that, for as long as he is judged by his inexperience, he will remain inexperienced.
Eddie Jones, perhaps buoyed by his side’s 15-game unbeaten run but also with his hand somewhat forced by a lengthy injury list, has given 23-year-old Clifford his maiden Six Nations start in the biggest game of all.
Alongside him in a back-row containing only 20 caps – the most inexperienced English back-row for five years – are 22-year-old Maro Itoje and Nathan Hughes, with older heads Tom Wood and James Haskell taking their place on the bench.
In a hypothetical world where rugby matches are decided solely on experience, Wales would win on Saturday to complete four successive Six Nations wins over England.
For the third match running, Wales’ matchday squad has over 900 caps, while it only just missed that figure in 2014.
England’s side is actually their most experienced of the last four matches with 810 caps, whereas three years ago they came up short against Wales by more than 400 caps.
When picking a Wales side, experience is the be all and end all for Howley, but when it comes to assessing the opposition, his captain says quality is more important than experience.
Realistically, there cannot be too many qualms with retaining Dan Biggar in the 10 jersey. He has performed solidly for Wales of late, performing his role in the manner expected of him.
But if you’re going to pick him, pick him based on the skill-set and tactics he offers – don’t just pick the more experienced man every time regardless of form.
Despite being the form fly-half in Wales, it has never really felt like Davies has been genuinely considered for the starting role, despite Howley’s protestations to the contrary.
Pertinently, this year’s fixture marks the 50th anniversary of Jarrett’s Match, when an 18-year-old Keith Jarrett scored a then world-record 19 points on debut to give Wales a 34-21 victory.
Ten years ago, a 21-year-old James Hook scored 22 points in Wales’ 27-18 win in Cardiff. Sometimes inexperience can be a good thing.
In 2013, Sam Davies was named World Junior Player of the Year.
In four caps for Wales, he has helped mastermind a come-from-behind win over Italy, and slotted a winning drop-goal against Japan.
The runner-up to the crown four years ago was Ardie Savea, a flanker with 12 caps for the All Blacks.
In third place? Jack Clifford.