Iestyn Harris schools Wales in stern lessons needed for World Cup


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The Independent Online

Iestyn Harris will be looking for a credible performance from his Welsh side today, but part of his focus will be fixed a year ahead.

Wales play England at Wrexham this afternoon, in a match that few – if any – expect them to win. The object of the exercise, however, is becoming competitive in time for the start of the World Cup exactly 12 months from now.

With Italy, the Cook Islands and the US to face next autumn, the incentive is there for Wales to progress in the tournament.

"We've gone from being ranked 15th in the world to sixth," says Harris, a dual-code international in his playing days. "But to play the teams ranked above us we have to increase our intensity."

Wales found that out last weekend, when a 10-minute lull against France in Lens saw them beaten 20-6. They also know that an England team fresh from a high-altitude training camp in South Africa will require another big step up.

Harris is too much of a realist to make any rash predictions. "Success for us will be to improve in a number of areas," he says. "The important thing is that we are moving in the right direction."

The Welsh coach points out that he only has six or seven full-time professionals at his disposal. One of them, the new captain, Craig Kopczak, did not even have a club last weekend, although his move from Bradford to Huddersfield has since been confirmed.

What Harris, who is also assistant coach at Wigan, does have behind him is the structure that is bringing through young Welsh players who are already schooled in rugby league.

He remembers as a young Welsh international himself, playing with the likes of Jonathan Davies and Scott Gibbs.

"They were world-class players, but beyond them there was absolutely nothing," he says. Now there are two semi-professional clubs in North and South Wales, a scholarship scheme in Cardiff run by Wigan and a centre of excellence on Deeside.

"You'll never get anywhere if you don't have your infrastructure right. Now we are getting young players in demand from rugby union who are choosing to play league instead."

He is arguing that he needs a 10-day training camp before the World Cup. "We really need that time together," Harris says. "We have standards that have to be met and if they aren't players will not be selected."

England, who are the joint hosts of next year's tournament, have also been aiming all their preparation at success on that stage.

Their South African adventure has been hailed as a great success, but they need to win this autumn series convincingly if they are to persuade anyone that they are on the right track.

They start out today without Sam Tomkins, who has still not recovered from a knee injury, and with Zak Hardaker replacing him at full-back.

The Wigan hooker Michael McIlorum has been cleared to play after completing a suspension.