Wales coach Warren Gatland backing Rhys Priestland to respond to his critics
WALES coach Warren Gatland believes Rhys Priestland will battle his way through the criticism that has been hurled his way over the past fortnight.
The Scarlets fly-half has been restored to the No. 10 jersey for Saturday's clash with world champions New Zealand at the Millennium Stadium — one of five changes to the side shocked by Samoa last Friday.
Priestland was hailed as one of Wales's key men at the 2011 World Cup, a player who made Gatland's side tick behind the scrum.
However, like many of Wales's leading players, he has struggled to hit such heights this autumn.
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With Dan Biggar still nursing the shoulder injury he picked up against Samoa and James Hook unlikely to be available against Australia next week, Priestland is handed another chance to silence his critics in Cardiff on Saturday. But Gatland believes the flak, including abuse on social networking sites, is proving tough for the 25-year-old to deal with.
"If you can handle it you will come through better for it, but it has been tough for him, tough for him personally," said the New Zealander.
"He was number two at the Scarlets and that can be quite easy with no pressure on you. He then gets thrown in two minutes before kick-off at Twickenham, has a great World Cup, good Six Nations and when he has played well Wales have played well.
"But he has taken the brunt of a lot of criticism over the last couple of weeks and he hasn't experienced that before.
"Yes, we could have made changes, but there are certain players we need to support and back.
"We are well aware of the pressures he has been under, but one of the things that attracted us to Rhys Priestland was the confidence he displayed and a slight cockiness that you look for in a ten — that ability to control the game and the people around him.
"At the moment he has found that challenging and tough because he has faced a lot of criticism.
"We see an incredibly talented player that is just not playing quite as well as he can.
"But we expect him to go out there and perform on Saturday."
Priestland slots into the same back division that took the field for Wales's Grand Slam match against France in March.
His regional colleague Jonathan Davies, who Gatland yesterday hailed as 'world class' makes a welcome return from a groin injury, while flanker Sam Warburton reclaims the captaincy from Ryan Jones with Ospreys flanker Justin Tipuric dropping down to the replacements.
Lock Ian Evans has failed to overcome a knee injury picked up against Samoa so Luke Charteris starts at lock alongside Bradley Davies, while Paul James is preferred to Gethin Jenkins at loose-head prop.
Former captain Matthew Rees is also back at hooker after passing a fitness test on his calf strain.
Gatland is taking charge for the first time this autumn, having handed over the reins to attack coach Rob Howley for the defeats to Argentina and Samoa.
And he is demanding a big response from his players against a New Zealand team he believes is one of the finest to have visited these shores.
"We have had a couple of tough weeks, but we are not as poor as we have been over the last couple of weeks," he added.
"This New Zealand team is one of the best rugby sides to have ever played the game and probably the best All Blacks side ever.
"There have been times perhaps in the past when Welsh sides have lost the game before taking the field so we are going to go out there and try to throw something a bit different at the All Blacks to try to put them under pressure.
"If you just try and compete with them, you are going to come off second best.
"You have got to be prepared to take a few risks, which we will try to do on the weekend."