RUGBY LEAGUE : Wales fill gaps with `outsiders'

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The Independent Online
Tonight's match at Ninian Park will go a long way towards determining both the John Smith's European Championship - a grand name for a tentative revival of the three-cornered competition also involving France - and whether it has been worth diluti ng theWelshness of the Wales side.

The red shirts in Cardiff will conceal a departure from the largely Welsh-born teams who have been selected since the national side was revived in 1991.

The change has been forced on them. If Wales are to compete effectively in the Centenary World Cup later this year, they need a bigger pool of players and more authority in certain positions.

The enthusiasm of Paul Atcheson, Martin Hall and Richie Eyres for playing for the land of their grandparents solves problems at full-back, hooker and loose forward, in none of which Wales were strong. At prop, the adoption of Kelvin Skerrett and Neil Cowie gives Wales almost an embarrassment of options.

The question is how the new combination will gel together and whether the spirit that has been the biggest Welsh asset for the past three and a half years will survive the process.

In football, Jack Charlton's Republic of All-Comers has demolished a psychological barrier by demonstrating that birth is not all, but it is hard to imagine the Anglo-Welsh summoning up the patriotic fervour that has been a feature of Wales's games.

On the other hand, they immediately become a much better team for the introduction of players rooted in the code. The English are now wary of them, and that is more than mere window dressing to boost an event which has been slow, at least in terms of ticket sales, to seize the imagination in South Wales.

The Welsh coach, Clive Griffiths, has tried to strike a balance between his old and new resources. "It is very tempting to play a unit like the Wigan front row, but David Young has never let me down," he said of his decision to restrict Cowie to a place on the bench.

Another significant decision is to play the captain, Jonathan Davies, at stand-off, after two poor games, by his standards, for Warrington at full-back.

For all their element of experimentation, the English side Wales will face are by no means weak. There is a core of Test experience and, of the new players, Richard Russell and Harvey Howard have shone in successful sides this season.

With not just a World Cup but also an Australian tour within the next 18 months, they - and the other debutants, Ikram Butt, Richard Gay and Anthony Farrell - all have every incentive to catch the eye tonight.

WaleS: Atcheson (Wigan); Ford (Salford), Bateman, Harris (both Warrington), Sullivan (St Helens); Davies (Warrington), Ellis (Workington); Skerrett, Hall (both Wigan), Young (Salford), Moriarty, Perrett (both Halifax), Eyres (Leeds). Substitutes: Hadley (Widnes), Powell (Wakefield), Cowie (Wigan), Phillips (Workington).

England: Gay (Hull); Robinson, Connolly (both Wigan), Newlove (Bradford), Butt (Featherstone); Schofield (Leeds), Fox (Bradford); Harrison (Halifax), Russell (Castleford), Howard (Leeds), Farrell (Sheffield), Nickle (St Helens), Clarke (Wigan). Substitutes: Cassidy (Wigan), Powell (Sheffield), McNamara (Hull), McCurrie (Widnes).

Referee: R Smith (Castleford).

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