Wales manager Ryan Giggs says Gareth Bale remains in love with football and is more than capable of handling the criticism he has received in recent months.

Bale has been through a somewhat tumultuous time at Real Madrid, with questions over his commitment to the club arising amid form and fitness issues.

He courted controversy last month when he posed with a flag that read: "Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order," following his country's victory over Hungary that sealed a place at Euro 2020.

However, Giggs believes Bale's vast experience means he can easily deal with any negativity.

"It's all noise that you can't control and it's about blocking out that noise. If you don't hear it then it's not going to affect you," Giggs told Sky Sports News.

"Gareth is at one of the biggest clubs in the world, he's won four Champions Leagues, he's been through everything so he can handle it [the criticism].

"A lot of people have sort of questioned his love for the game. He still loves the game and he loves playing it.

"He loves winning, he loves scoring goals, he loves making goals. It's not a problem to Gareth with the experience he's got."

Liam Williams has seemingly confirmed reports he has agreed to leave Saracens and rejoin Scarlets at the end of the season.

Wales full-back Williams – who is recovering from an ankle injury suffered during the Rugby World Cup – joined Saracens in 2017.

The 28-year-old's contract is due to expire at the end of the 2019-20 campaign and reports on Friday claimed he was set to move back to Scarlets.

Though the impending switch has not been officially confirmed, Williams replied to a tweet questioning why he had opted to rejoin his former side and leave the reigning Premiership and European champions.

He wrote: "Because home is home."

Williams would be the first high-profile departure from Saracens since they were fined £5.36million and deducted 35 points for breaching salary cap rules.

Wales centre Owen Watkin is set to miss part of the Six Nations at least after undergoing surgery on a torn knee cartilage.

Watkin, who featured in six of his country's seven games at the recent Rugby World Cup, was hurt in the Ospreys' home Champions Cup defeat to Racing 92 on December 7.

In a statement on Saturday, his club confirmed he is set to be out of action for up to eight weeks.

As such, he is on course to miss Wales' opening Six Nations fixtures against Italy and Ireland, on February 1 and 8 respectively, while he may also struggle to be ready for the clash with France on February 22.

The Ospreys also provided an update on Gareth Anscombe, who missed the World Cup after suffering a serious knee injury in a warm-up match against England in August.

"Gareth has undergone a second procedure to his right knee this week," read a statement.

"As a result of Gareth's progress plateauing in the last month, and in conjunction with Gareth and his specialist, it was decided that a secondary minor procedure would be in his best interest, with the aim to allow him to progress and accelerate his rehabilitation in the new year.

"Surgery went well and at this stage we're ruling nothing out with regard to a possible return towards the end of the season.

"However, we'll be in a better position to clarify a realistic prognosis in the new year when he goes back to see the specialist."

Former Wales assistant coach Rob Howley has apologised and opened up on his battle with "demons" after being banned for making 363 bets on rugby over a four-year spell.

On Monday he was handed an 18-month ban for breaching World Rugby's anti-corruption and betting regulations.

The sanction, nine months of which is suspended for two years, followed a three-month investigation by an independent disciplinary panel.

It was discovered that Howley's bets had spanned dates between November 2015 and September 2019, some of which were on Wales games during his time with the team.

Howley has issued a full apology, insisting his sister Karen's death in 2011 had left him in a difficult place.

"I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to all those close to me and everyone this has affected, especially the rugby community, close colleagues and above all my family," Howley said in a widely reported statement on Tuesday.

"I am an extremely private man, and unfortunately it was this that kept me silent as I battled my demons following my sister's tragic death.

"The last few months have been immensely tough, and continued help will allow me to find the right path back to rugby which has always been my true passion. 

"I am immensely grateful for the faith and support I've received from everybody close to me."

Backs coach Howley was withdrawn from Wales duty when the WRU learned of a potential breach in the build-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

The ban has consequently been backdated to September 16, meaning he will be eligible to return to the sport on June 16, 2020.

Howley wished to make it clear that his good character had been recognised during an investigation which he fully co-operated with.

The 49-year-old added: "I feel it is important for me to reiterate a number of the key facts that were highlighted and proven during the investigation:

"'Mr Howley acknowledged his breach of the regulation at the first available opportunity, that he has demonstrated deep felt and genuine remorse, that he has an exemplary character and an exemplary disciplinary record (both as a player and coach).

"'There was no suggestion of dishonesty or misuse of confidential information involved.

"'The fact that Mr Howley had sought help from a psychologist who had diagnosed that the trigger for Mr Howley's recreational betting had been a family tragedy and that Mr Howley had refrained from betting since his suspension'."

Former Wales assistant coach Rob Howley has been handed an 18-month ban for breaching World Rugby's anti-corruption and betting regulations.

The sanction, nine months of which is suspended for two years, was announced by the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) on Monday following a three-month investigation.

Howley was withdrawn from Wales duty when the WRU learned of a potential breach in the build-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

The ban has consequently been backdated to September 16, meaning he will be eligible to return to the sport on June 16, 2020.

An independent disciplinary panel found that Howley placed 363 bets between November 2015 and September 2019, some of which were on Wales games during his time with the team.

Howley used a mobile phone and email address supplied by the WRU to place bets that resulted in losses of approximately £4,000.

During a hearing in Cardiff last week, Howley stated he had not gambled since being stood down and was seeing a psychologist to stop betting.

The 49-year-old can lodge an appeal but must notify the WRU within 14 days of his receipt of the decision.

Warren Gatland believes the knee injury that deprived Wales of Gareth Anscombe was a decisive factor in the country's Rugby World Cup semi-final defeat to South Africa.

Gatland saw a glittering career as Wales coach end in disappointment as they again fell short of World Cup glory in 2019.

Having overseen defeats in the semi-finals in 2011 and quarter-finals in 2015, Gatland guided his side to the last four in Japan, only for them to suffer an agonising 19-16 loss to the Springboks.

Anscombe sustained an anterior cruciate ligament injury in Wales' warm-up game with England, and the fly-half's absence was keenly felt by Gatland as they were denied by the eventual champions.

"We gave it everything in that semi-final against South Africa and at 16-16 with 10 minutes to go we were in control of the ball, the momentum had swung our way, I thought we were going to win and get ourselves into a World Cup final," Gatland told WalesOnline.

"It wasn't to be but that's just rugby, it's sport. I was gutted.

"That was the first time that I felt we really missed a player and that was Gareth Anscombe. He was a big loss for us.

"I've loved my time in Wales. The people have been amazing."

Enormous applause around the stadium as Warren Gatland signs off from Wales duty. What a twelve years it's been. #DiolchWarren pic.twitter.com/7z4swrAGw1

— Welsh Rugby Union (@WelshRugbyUnion) November 1, 2019

"Rhys Patchell did really well for us in a World Cup and Dan [Biggar] was excellent.

"But I just felt that the balance we had with Anscombe and Biggar beforehand, they complemented each other really well. They're different types of players and you're able to use them differently and use your strengths differently.

"It was the first time in my entire coaching career I felt that the loss of one player had a real effect.

"If you lose someone like [Taulupe] Faletau – and we know how good he is – we've got other players who are able to fill the space.

"A fit Faletau at his best would have been significant but there are other quality loose forwards there, so I felt like we could manage that.

"Anscombe is someone that we missed."

The former Real Madrid star whose words inspired the infamous "WALES. GOLF. MADRID" flag hopes criticism of Gareth Bale has come to an end.

Predrag Mijatovic, scorer of 44 goals for Madrid in the late 1990s, fuelled negative fan opinion against the 30-year-old winger when he questioned Bale's priorities in an October interview.

"[The perception is] the first thing he thinks about is Wales, then golf and after that, Real Madrid," Mijatovic, 50, was quoted as telling radio station Cadena SER.

Wales fans adapted the comments into a light-hearted chant and later a banner, which Bale posed behind following last month's triumph over Hungary.

The former Tottenham star was celebrating qualification for Euro 2020 but several Spanish media outlets perceived his actions to be a slight against Madrid.

He was met with jeers every time he touched the ball on his next appearance at the Santiago Bernabeu, a 3-1 LaLiga win against Real Sociedad.

"My intention was not this, I have already said that Bale has great qualities as a footballer and I have always liked him," Mijatovic told AS TV.

"It is true that he makes mistakes on some occasions and we have to comment on him as former players and former directors, but I don't want any more controversies, nor the flag to play a leading role.

"What I want is for Madrid to play well and win all the possible titles. I'd rather not say anything else [about Bale] because we're going to bring it all up again.

"The most important thing is that Bale is back, he's playing and that's what we all want."

Mijatovic spent three seasons with Madrid during his playing career, notably scoring the goal that secured victory against Juventus in the 1998 Champions League final.

He served as the club's sporting director from 2006 to 2009.

Roberto Mancini has warned Italy not to underestimate the less glamorous teams joining them in Group A at Euro 2020.

The Azzurri will face Turkey, Switzerland and Wales next June after receiving a relatively kind draw.

Mancini's men will be expected to reach the knockout rounds after maintaining a perfect record through qualifying, the only nation alongside Belgium to accomplish this feat.

But in 2016 semi-finalists Wales, a talented Turkey team and a Switzerland side boasting the best FIFA ranking of the four, Mancini found hidden demons.

"I don't think the group will be as simple as some are saying," the former Inter head coach told Radio Anch'io.

"They are annoying teams with nothing to lose. They all have good players and a lot of young players.

"Switzerland know us well and are always annoying to face, Wales can be a surprise with players in the Premier League and Turkey took four points from France in their qualifying group.

"These are teams that are difficult to deal with, but we are optimistic."

Euro 2020 will mark Italy's first appearance at a major tournament in four years, following the shock failure to reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Mancini confirmed the squad he intends to take is already largely settled.

He said: "I believe the group is now outlined, but obviously if an extraordinary young man, a Paolo Rossi or [Salvatore] Schillaci, were to emerge in the next six months, we would be very pleased."

The last three European winners of major tournaments will play in the same pool at Euro 2020, after France, Portugal and Germany were all drawn together

Germany and France - victors at the respective 2014 and 2018 World Cups - will take on reigning European champions Portugal and a play-off winner in Group G.

Croatia, runners-up at last year's World Cup, will renew acquaintances with England, the side they beat in the semi-finals.

Here is the draw in full for next year's event, with four places in the finals still to be determined by the four path-winners in March's play-offs.

 

Group A: Turkey, Italy, Wales, Switzerland

Group B: Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Russia.

Group C: Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria, play-off winner from Path D (Georgia, Belarus, North Macedonia or Kosovo) or Romania if they win Path A.

Group D: England, Croatia, Czech Republic, play-off winner from Path C (Scotland, Israel, Norway or Serbia)

Group E: Spain, Sweden, Poland, play-off winner from Path B (Slovakia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Northern Ireland or Republic of Ireland)

Group F: Germany, France, Portugal, play-off winner from Path A (Iceland, Bulgaria, Hungary) or winner of Path D (Georgia, Belarus, North Macedonia or Kosovo) if Romania win Path A.

Holders Portugal will face world champions France and fellow heavyweights Germany in a daunting Group F at Euro 2020.

Saturday's draw in Bucharest pitted Fernando Santos' men and their talismanic captain Cristiano Ronaldo against the winners of the two World Cups either side of their Euro 2016 triumph.

It means Didier Deschamps' Bleus will have an opportunity for revenge after Portugal beat them on home soil at the Stade de France to lift the trophy.

The nation with the dubious pleasure of joining them is still to be determined. Iceland, Bulgaria or Hungary would claim the fourth spot if they progress through their play-off route in Path A.

However, if Romania are victorious in Path A, they will go into Group C with Netherlands, Ukraine and Austria.

In permutations that underline the convoluted and criticised format, one of Georgia, Belarus, North Macedonia or Kosovo from play-off Path B would enter Group F if Romania qualify. Otherwise, the winner of Path B goes into Group C.

Italy open the tournament, which will take place across 12 host cities, when they entertain Turkey in Rome on June 12. Wales and Switzerland are also in Group A.

England and Croatia renew acquaintances at Wembley in Group D – Gareth Southgate's men having been sunk by a Mario Mandzukic winner in the semi-finals of Russia 2018 before progressing to the Nations League Finals at the expense of Zlatko Dalic's team.

There is the possibility of an all-British encounter if Scotland prevail from their play-off path alongside Israel, Norway and Serbia, while Czech Republic will meet England again in the finals having traded victories with the Three Lions during qualification.

Group B is the second group not waiting to see how play-off cards fall, with the world's number-one ranked team Belgium lining up alongside Denmark, Finland and Russia.

Spain are aiming to make it three European titles in four attempts after securing glory in 2008 and 2012.

They head up Group C, where the winner of the play-off route including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and the Republic of Ireland will round out the line-up alongside Sweden and Poland.

The Euro 2020 play-offs take place during next March's international break.

Wayne Pivac saw encouraging signs for the future as his Wales reign began with a 43-33 victory over Warren Gatland's Barbarians in Cardiff.

Former Scarlets coach Pivac was at the helm for the first time and he made a winning start against his predecessor Gatland's team, Wales running in six tries to the BaaBaas' five.

Josh Adams, the leading try-scorer at the Rugby World Cup, scored a brace, as did hooker Ken Owens, and Pivac was pleased with what he saw from his team in attack.

However, with Wales having led 33-7 early in the second half, Pivac admitted there is work to do defensively ahead of their Six Nations title defence.

"A lot of good work went in during the week," Pivac said at a news conference after the win.

"There's a lot of info to take on in a week, but scoring 43 points was a sign of what we want to do. We need to tighten up the defence but it's promising.

"The boys have been fantastic. We're pleased to get the win and focus on the Six Nations."

Wales' victory came without captain Alun Wyn Jones and star backs Liam Williams, George North and Jonathan Davies.

With wing Johnny McNicholl having scored a try on debut, too, Pivac is buoyant about the future.

"The first thing we'll do is review the game," he explained.

"It's been a valuable week. There were some well-known faces in the stand and they'll look forward to coming back into the fold."

The last three European winners of major tournaments will play in the same pool at Euro 2020, after France, Portugal and Germany were all drawn together

Germany and France - victors at the respective 2014 and 2018 World Cups - will take on reigning European champions Portugal and a play-off winner in Group G.

Croatia, runners-up at last year's World Cup, will renew acquaintances with England, the side they beat in the semi-finals.

Here is the draw in full for next year's event, with four places in the finals still to be determined by the four path-winners in March's play-offs.

 

Group A: Turkey, Italy, Wales, Switzerland

Group B: Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Russia.

Group C: Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria, play-off winner from Path D (Georgia, Belarus, North Macedonia or Kosovo) or Romania if they win Path A.

Group D: England, Croatia, Czech Republic, play-off winner from Path C (Scotland, Israel, Norway or Serbia)

Group E: Spain, Sweden, Poland, play-off winner from Path B (Slovakia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Northern Ireland or Republic of Ireland)

Group F: Germany, France, Portugal, play-off winner from Path A (Iceland, Bulgaria, Hungary) or winner of Path D (Georgia, Belarus, North Macedonia or Kosovo) if Romania win Path A.

Warren Gatland bade an emotional farewell to Wales on Saturday as his successor Wayne Pivac's reign started with a 43-33 win over Barbarians.

New Zealander Gatland spent 12 years in charge of the Wales team, guiding them to a pair of Rugby World Cup semi-finals and three Grand Slams, but he led their opponents in Cardiff, where Pivac was at the helm for the first time.

Josh Adams and Ken Owens both scored two tries apiece as Pivac began life as Wales coach with a victory.

Gatland, who was given a rousing ovation on the pitch after the game, thanked the crowd at the Principality Stadium for their support during the past dozen years.

"It's been brilliant for 12 years," Gatland told Channel 4.

"I love this place, you guys have given me so much.

"My time at Wales has been absolutely brilliant, there's a really special place in my heart for Wales and the people here.

"It's been incredibly special."

Gatland is returning to his homeland to take charge of the Chiefs and, though it came at his team's expense, he was pleased to see Wales get up and running under Pivac.

"I'll be back some day, maybe sitting in the stand," he added.

"It's been pretty cool and it's been brilliant for Wales to win today, and a new regime.

"It's been so brilliant to be able to put smiles on people's faces from time to time and [win] a few Grand Slams."

Barbarians coach Warren Gatland bade Wales farewell on Saturday as his successor Wayne Pivac claimed a 43-33 victory in his first match in charge.

Gatland's glorious 12-year stint as Wales coach came to an end after the Rugby World Cup, where he led the team to their second fourth-place finish of his tenure, but the New Zealander was back in Cardiff to lead his old team's opponents.

His successor Pivac made a winning start, though, as wing Josh Adams and hooker Ken Owens crossed for two tries apiece, though a late BaaBaas fightback meant the margin of victory was only 10 points.

Gatland was afforded a rousing reception when he was shown on the big screen at the Principality Stadium while BaaBaas captain Rory Best, Ireland's most-capped forward, was given a standing ovation when he was substituted in the second half of his final appearance.

Wales led 19-7 at the break as Adams, the World Cup's leading try-scorer, went over along with international debutant Johnny McNicholl and Owens.

Further tries from Owens and Adams after the break put Wales firmly in charge, while substitute Gareth Davies also got in on the act.

The Barbarians scored five tries in total - four of them coming after the break - as Josh Strauss, Curwin Bosch, Shaun Stevenson, Craig Millar and Peter Samu all crossed.

Wales have honoured their former coach Warren Gatland by naming an entrance to the Principality Stadium after him.

Gatland coached Wales for 12 years, ending his tenure following their Rugby World Cup campaign this year.

The defending Six Nations champions were beaten 19-16 by South Africa in the semi-finals, before going down to Gatland's native New Zealand in the third-place play-off.

Wayne Pivac has taken over from Gatland, who led Wales to four Six Nations triumphs and will now go up against his former team when he coaches a Barbarians side in Cardiff on Saturday.

Ahead of the match, the Welsh Rugby Union has confirmed the main entrance to the Principality Stadium has been re-named 'Gatland's Gate' in tribute to the 56-year-old.

"This building will always be a very special place for me," said Gatland, Wales' longest-serving coach, of the Principality Stadium.

"It evokes a host of wonderful memories and has been the location for some of my very best days in rugby. It embodies all the emotion that goes with winning big games, but also the hard work, dedication and passion of everyone involved at every stage from players to staff and to my own family and to the fans themselves.

"This a hugely unexpected honour and one that I am humbled by. I'd like to thank all the staff at the Union, the players, my fellow coaches and backroom staff and everyone throughout Welsh rugby for their passion, respect and belief over the last 12 years."

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