Rugby Union: Henry spots a perfect opening

Leicester's livewire emerges as the key to England while Wales seek to avoid the banana skins; Robert Cole says the Pumas are just the right first-night guests
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The Independent Online
THERE MAY be huge euphoria and expectation in Wales following the national side's eight successive rugby triumphs, but as they look forward to Friday evening's opening game against Argentina at the new Millennium Stadium, Welsh fans and players need little reminding that they know more about rugby World Cup banana skins than anyone else.

There are those who already believe, just as they do before the start of almost every Five Nations' campaign, that the trophy is as good as ready to be locked up in Cardiff Castle for the next four years. Fortunately for Welsh hopes, their coach, Graham Henry, is not one of them, and he is desperately trying to keep the pressure off by playing down his side's chances of success.

And well he might. The last two World Cups have been unmitigated disasters for Wales. They finished both tournaments as the only Five Nations team not to qualify for the quarter-finals, and memorably lost their opening game in the 1991 tournament to Western Samoa.

That defeat cast Wales among the dead men of international rugby, but this time looks like being different. Wales, as the host nation for the first time, will go into the fourth World Cup sound of mind, spirit, body and team.

None of the divisive disasters that robbed them of key players through injuries, or coaches through poor results, have befallen them in the build- up to this week's tournament. Henry has only one slight injury worry, with Allan Bateman's calf, and has a team walking tall after a string of victories that include England, South Africa and France twice.

So when Rob Howley leads out his men to play in front of the biggest crowd ever for both a sporting fixture in Wales and a World Cup match on Friday, there will be an air of quiet confidence about them, especially as they will be facing an Argentinian side who they have beaten three times in the past year.

The Pumas were also Wales's only victims in their dismal 1991 World Cup, also on home soil, although even that was a struggle. That the Pumas have lost two coaches, a captain and such a key figure as Federico Mendez in the build-up to their campaign should make them easy meat.

While the new skipper, Lisandro Arbizu, has been talking a good game since arriving in Wales, claiming all his side's problems are now behind them, the truth is that Wales will go into Friday's match as overwhelming favourites.

That is perhaps Henry's biggest worry. While he has been working hard on building up the self-belief within his players, he has also been spending a great deal of time in keeping their feet firmly on the ground and the expectations of the nation as realistic as possible.

When Argentina were last in Wales they came with the most feared scrummage in world rugby. Wales got off to a flying start, yet they were then pushed all over Stradey Park in the end and were lucky to hang on to a 43-30 win. Neil Jenkins chipped in with 23 priceless points that night. He proved the Pumas' chief executioner once again in the summer when he kicked 18 points each in the two Test triumphs in Buenos Aires.

So it is no wonder Arbizu and his players fear Jenkins more than anyone else in their pool, although the Cardiff outside-half would be the first to admit that his incredible success with the boot under Graham Henry - he is averaging 20 points a game under his guidance - is down to the power of the Welsh pack.

Since they were embarrassed by the Pumas in Llanelli, they have turned the tables through the re-introduction of Garin Jenkins at hooker and recruitment of Peter Rogers at prop. Now it is Wales who have a fearsome front five. The settled nature of this Welsh team could be the key to success, while the dramas that have rocked the Pumas in recent months are their potential undoing.

Peter Corrigan, page 14

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