Rugby Union: Buoyant Wales opt for consistency

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The Independent Online
GRAHAM HENRY spent precisely five seconds in a state of deep tactical analysis before naming an unchanged Wales side for this weekend's Five Nations finale with England at Wembley, an unusually straightforward selectorial operation that suggested a sudden outbreak of stability amongst the Red Dragon elite. "It was a no-brainer," said the coach of his decision.

Given that an entire army of Welsh critics would accuse their flawed heroes of playing like "no-brainers" in recent matches with the old enemy, it was an interesting choice of phraseology.

Still, there was never much likelihood of the shrewd New Zealander interfering with a line-up that registered impressive back-to-back victories in France and Italy, especially as the previous Welsh idea of consistency had been based around winning two consecutive line-outs. "There is quite a buzz about rugby in this country at the moment - in fact, we're so positive about things that the media seem to be finding life quite difficult," grinned Henry. "Frankly, it was an obvious decision to stay with the same side. We need to get some experience into the squad with a World Cup only a few months away."

Perversely, in the light of England's four-match unbeaten run and their status as Grand Slam favourites, it was Clive Woodward who spent the greater amount of time in deep contemplation yesterday. Niggling injuries to two of his Bath contingent, Matt Perry and Jeremy Guscott, continued to confuse his deliberations, hence the naming of a 25-man squad that included the unfamiliar name of Steve Hanley. The 19-year-old Sale wing appeared to be contesting the vacant right wing spot with Newcastle's Tony Underwood, who, if not quite twice the youngster's age, is inestimably more experienced in the whys and wherefores of international rugby.

Woodward watched Hanley at Heywood Road on Saturday and was clearly impressed with his contribution to Sale's narrow victory over London Irish.

It is also true to say that given a genuine choice, Woodward would rather play the youth card than play safe. Perhaps he was waiting for hard news of the princely Guscott hamstring before settling on his wing combination, the available evidence suggesting that while he would be quite happy to run Hanley outside his longest-serving threequarter, he might think twice about handing him a debut as part of a revamped and wholly experimental unit.

As expected, Woodward gave Austin Healey an immediate recall, despite the fact that the "Leicester Lip" would not complete his eight-week suspension for stamping until 24 hours before kick-off. It was the only sensible decision, if not a particularly diplomatic one; Healey may not be flavour of the month with the disciplinarians of Twickenham, but his versatility and natural fitness demanded his inclusion.

The fact that Woodward may still be wondering what to do for the best in terms of his starting line-up will not have escaped the Welsh camp, but they have spent the best part of a fortnight talking up the red rose army as potential world-beaters and were in no mood to change tack yesterday.

"If we can hang in there and give the English a game, I'll be happy," said Henry yesterday. "I think we're looking at a step up in every area: we'll require stability at first phase and we'll need to retain the ball in the tackle area. We'll have to make our first-up tackles and we'll need to maintain both our discipline and our positive approach. I'm concentrating on the whole package because if you concentrate on one particular aspect you tend to find the next thing falls apart."

His decision to tinker with the reinforcements, where the Cardiff props Andrew Lewis and David Young come in for Darren Morris, the Swansea loose head, and Geraint Lewis, the Pontypridd flanker, holds out the intriguing possibility of Wales sending on an entire replacement front row at some stage during the second half. The Welsh took a fearful spanking at the sharp end when they conceded 60 points to England at Twickenham last season - indeed, they leaked a highly embarrassing pushover try - and it will be no surprise if Henry makes a lock, stock and barrel intervention if things go similarly pear-shaped at Wembley.

However, it is the Welsh line-out, or lack of it, that is likely to give him most cause for concern, and Henry is praying that Sunday's referee, the South African Andre Watson, takes a more lenient view of any shady Red Dragon tactics than Ed Morrison, the Englishman who presided over Wales' defeat at Murrayfield in the opening round of matches. "If any referee is going to come into a match with a preconceived idea of what will and will not be allowed, I hope he will be professional enough to discuss it with us before kick-off," he said, pointedly.



S Howarth (Sale); G Thomas (Cardiff), M Taylor, S Gibbs (both Swansea), D James; N Jenkins (both Pontypridd), R Howley (Cardiff, capt); P Rogers (London Irish), G Jenkins, B Evans (both Swansea), C Quinnell (Richmond), C Wyatt (Llanelli), C Charvis (Swansea), B Sinkinson (Neath), S Quinnell (Llanelli). Replacements: N Walne (Richmond), N Boobyer (Llanelli), D Llewellyn (Ebbw Vale), M Voyle (Llanelli), D Young, A Lewis (both Cardiff), B Williams (Richmond).


Backs: N Beal, M Dawson (both Northampton), M Perry, M Catt, J Guscott (all Bath), A Healey (Leicester), D Luger (Harlequins), J Wilkinson, T Underwood (both Newcastle), S Hanley, B-J Mather (both Sale), Forwards: J Leonard (Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath),G Rowntree, M Johnson, D Garforth, R Cockerill, M Corry, N Back (all Leicester), N McCarthy (Gloucester), G Archer (Newcastle), T Rodber (Northampton), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), R Hill (Saracens), B Clarke (Richmond).