Rugby Union: Wales heed a warrior's words before All Blacks battle

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Wales have attempted to tap into the indomitable spirit of a Falklands War veteran as part of their mental preparation for the Test against the All Blacks at Wembley today.

As Tim Glover reveals, nothing in sport is now left to chance.

Simon Weston, the Welsh guardsman who suffered horrific burns when his ship, the Sir Galahad was bombed by Argentinian fighters, dined with Wales at their hotel in Buckinghamshire and addressed them on the subject of dealing with adversity. It is a theme that is central to a charity he runs called Weston Spirit.

"We weren't sure how the players would react but it was spellbinding," a Welsh Rugby Union official said. "One of the things you learn in the army is about caring for each other and it's something that easily translates to a team game, especially rugby."

It is 43 years and 13 matches since Wales beat the All Blacks and more recently they have taken some fearful hidings including a record 54-5 defeat in 1988. Few expect Wales to stop the rot today - indeed the joke doing the rounds in Wales is that the game has been switched to Lord's where the scoreboard would be better equipped to keep pace with the points - but there are signs that Kevin Bowring, the coach, and Terry Cobner, the manager, are beginning to get the balance right.

"Welsh forwards saw themselves as ball-handlers rather than ball-winners and in this respect we seemed to have gone full circle," Cobner said. "Traditionally we had ball-winners not users. Welsh backs are still among the best and could beat any opponent in a one-to-one. What we haven't been doing is winning enough possession to put them in that position. We have made a fundamental change in that first and foremost all the forwards are there to win the ball."

That, of course, is the rub, for Wales are feeding a back line that looks as impressive as anything assembled in Britain. For the first time in a long time Wales have players who will have caused the All Blacks to think long and hard: for starters the half-backs Robert Howley, playing against New Zealand for the first time, and Neil Jenkins and the centres Allan Bateman and Scott Gibbs are world class.

"This could be our most difficult Test," John Hart, the New Zealand coach, said. "Wales look more co-ordinated than England. They are well coached and maybe enjoying a resurgence."

You would not expect Hart who, since his appointment two years ago has won 19 Tests out of 20 (the only defeat came in South Africa when the series was already won) to say: "We are the best in the world and Wales have no right to be on the same paddock as us." Even so, Hart is genuinely concerned about the welfare of Welsh rugby and can pinpoint the beginning of its demise.

"They finished third in the World Cup in 1987 and probably thought they were the third best team in the world," Hart said. "But it was a false picture. The week before they were comprehensively beaten by the All Blacks in Brisbane and that is when Welsh rugby died. They also lost players to rugby league but all that's finished now. I hope Wales are on the way back because we have a historic relationship.

"I just wish the game had been at Cardiff Arms Park." In two years' time the All Blacks will be gracing the new pounds 120m stadium in Cardiff for the next World Cup.

Hart said he was not at all surprised that Bowring had promised there would be no repeat of England's confrontational approach to the haka.

"Both teams will line up on the respective 10 metre lines," said Bowring, who has entrusted the captaincy to the Cardiff flanker Gwyn Jones, a 25- year-old medical student. "He understands the game I want to play and he's utterly courageous."

Jones took over the captaincy on a tour of the United States last summer and has carried on with bloodless victories over Romania and Tonga. This game though, in front of a crowd of 78,000, is a different ballgame.

"For us it's a double-edged sword playing against such an outstanding side," Jones said. "Because you're looking for ways to improve your own game while measuring yourself against the best. We have experienced players who are full of confidence. Welsh rugby has benefited from the Lions' success and has given as the belief that we can perform at the highest level."

Jones, who has had two shoulder operations in the last three years, may become a career specialist, like JPR Williams, in sports injuries.

"I can help injured players on the psychological side as well as with treatment and rehabilitation," he said.

Jones, perhaps more than most, empathised with Simon Weston's address.


at Wembley

K Morgan Pontypridd 15 C Cullen Manawatu

G Thomas Bridgend 14 J Wilson Otago

A Bateman Richmond 13 F Bunce North Harbour

S Gibbs Swansea 12 W Little North Harbour

N Walker Cardiff 11 J Lomu Counties

N Jenkins Pontypridd 10 A Mehrtens Canterbury

R Howley Cardiff 9 J Marshall Canterbury, capt

C Loader Swansea 1 C Dowd Auckland

B Williams Richmond 2 N Hewitt Southlands

D Young Cardiff 3 O Brown Auckland

G Llewellyn Harlequins 4 I Jones North Harbour

M Voyle Llanelli 5 R Brooke Auckland

R Appleyard Swansea 6 T Randell Otago

N Thomas Bath 8 Z Brooke Auckland

G Jones Cardiff, capt 7 J Kronfeld Otago

Referee: W Erickson (Australia) Kick-off: 3.0 (BBC1)