Rugby Union: Onus on Jones as Ruddock looks to nurture Henson

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The Independent Online
THE WELSH team were given an hour or so off yesterday afternoon, to have a walk around Rome, and in the absence of any paparazzi, we will never know if Gavin Henson spent more time at Gucci or the Trevi fountain. The popular press in Wales have been busy whipping up a Beckham-esque fervour around the hero of last week's win over England, but the pre-match chit-chat remained more or less focused on what the centre might do on the field at the Stadio Flaminio this afternoon.

And in this regard, after all, there is plenty to chat about. Henson won plaudits bordering on the worshipful for his defence and his match- winning penalty in Cardiff. The question over whether he should now have permanent possession of the kicking tee - instead of Stephen Jones - was raised with Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, in addition to whether more might be seen of the red dragons individually and collectively in attack. "We know we had a very good win against England," Ruddock said, "but we feel we didn't play as well as we know we can. We are hungry for a better all-round game. I've told the players to seize control early and not to wait for Italy to come to us.

"It's obviously my say on the goal-kicking. We're always in contact with the players, passing messages to the side of the pitch. The strategy is that Stephen Jones takes the first-up kicks, Gavin has the longer ones over about 40 metres, and we take it from there.

"Steve has been a frontline kicker for a long time for his clubs and for Wales. The fact he's missed a couple [against New Zealand in the single- point defeat in November and against England] doesn't make him a bad kicker. We feel we've got the best of both worlds."

Ruddock, who in a previous stint as coach at Leinster helped bring through Brian O'Driscoll, intends to nurture Henson carefully. Henson is destined to be Wales' first-choice points gatherer, and indeed the pick at fly- half - just not yet. "There is a definite feeling we want to bring Gavin on gradually," Ruddock said, "and not risk making him a hero to zero overnight. When Brian first came into the elite players' programme in Ireland he was very quiet and kept himself to himself. Gavin is still quite a young lad. At the moment he is a threat with his running game. He doesn't have to worry about the responsibility of making calls and taking all the kicks. Perhaps one day you'll see him becoming more frontline in that way."

The onus remains on Jones, Wales' second-highest Test scorer who moved from Llanelli Scarlets to Clermont-Auvergne in France last summer, to cope with the gremlins that cost him a missed penalty and conversion against England. It almost cost his country the big-time victory they had been craving, and the significance of the result alone cannot be overstated. Wales have finished in the top two of the Championship only twice since 1979, in the title-winning seasons of 1988 and 1994. An improvement on that record is now within their grasp but in Italy they have dangerous opponents whose hard-scrummaging pack gave Ireland severe problems in the 28-17 defeat here last Sunday.

"Our first challenge is to arrive with the same mental attitude as last week," said the Italy coach, John Kirwan, referring to the demands of back-to-back fixtures. The Azzurri have the advantage of playing both matches at home, but they lost the centre, Gonzalo Canale, to a dislocated shoulder in training on Wednesday, and Walter Pozzebon will deputise. The way O'Driscoll skated past Canale to set up two tries six days ago suggested all was not well with the Italians' backline defence.

Wales, too, have had a single change forced on them: the Ospreys' flanker, Jonathan Thomas, stands in for Dafydd Jones, who has a groin injury. Kirwan admits to being "sick of getting compliments for losing". His captain, Marco Bortolami, believes the team's French-based players are setting a good example for those based in Italy, in terms of lasting a full 80 minutes. "Rugby is 80 per cent mental, 20 per cent physical," said Bortolami. As usual, only one set of players, and supporters, is likely to be going 100 per cent mental come full-time this afternoon.


Kick-off 1.30pm, (Live BBC1)


R de Marigny (Rugby Parma) 15 G Thomas (Toulouse, capt)

Mirco Bergamasco (Treviso) 14 H Luscombe (N-Gwent Dragons)

W Pozzebon (Treviso) 13 T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues)

A Masi (Calvisano) 12 G Henson (Neath-Swan Ospreys)

L Nitoglia (Calvisano) 11 S Williams (Ospreys)

L Orquera (Petrarca Padova) 10 S Jones (Clermont-Auvergne)

A Troncon (Treviso) 9 D Peel (Llanelli Scarlets)

A lo Cicero (L'Aquila) 1 G Jenkins (Blues)

F Ongaro (Treviso) 2 M Davies (Gloucester)

M Castrogiovanni (Calvisano) 3 A Jones (Ospreys)

S Dellape (Agen) 4 B Cockbain (Ospreys)

M Bortolami (Narbonne, capt) 5 R Sidoli (Blues)

A Persico (Agen) 6 J Thomas (Ospreys)

Mauro Bergamasco (Std Francais) 7 M Williams (Blues)

S Parisse (Treviso) 8 M Owen (Dragons)

Referee: A Cole (Australia)

Replacements: 16 G Intoppa, 17 S Perugini (Calvisano), 18 C A del Fava (Rugby Parma), 19 D dal Maso (Treviso), 20 P Griffen (Calvisano), 21 M Barbini (Petrarca Padova), 22 K Robertson (Viadana)

Replacements: 16 R McBryde (Scarlets), 17 J Yapp (Blues), 18 I Gough (Dragons), 19 R Sowden-Taylor (Blues), 20 G Cooper, 21 C Sweeney, 22 K Morgan (all Dragons)