Rugby World Cup: The Dragon with Kiwi head finds new fighting fire

THE MAIN CONTENDERS New Zealand have the focus, Wales have the form while the Scots have shrewdness and South Africans are in transition
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GIVEN THE choice, the Wallaby hierarchy would like to see a bedspread- sized Welsh flag wrapped around Graham Henry's throat rather than around his shoulders. You have to admire the man's cheek, though. Henry's starring role in the Welsh Rugby Union's notorious international recruitment drive may have infuriated a few over-sensitive Sydneysiders - that advertisement in the Australian Rugby Review really was a masterpiece of one-upmanship - but nothing could have been more consistent with the mood of confidence sweeping through the land of the Red Dragon.

Henry has transformed the place. He is not working alone, of course; David Pickering, for instance, is playing a blinder as the clean-cut public face of the Welsh team management, and it is impossible to quantify the inspirational effects of Steve Black's involvement with the World Cup squad. But Henry is the main man, no question. He has taken on the Stone- Agers at the WRU and dragged them kicking and screaming into the professional era. He has facilitated a rapprochement between the Welsh Two, Cardiff and Swansea, and everyone else involved in rugby west of the Severn. And, most importantly of all, he has been winning matches. Eight of them, all in a row. Before very long, someone will dress him up as a druid and hold an eisteddfod in his honour.

When the World Cup draw was made way back when, there was no serious suggestion that Wales would win their pool. Argentina would scrummage them off the planet, Western Samoa would beat them up even more comprehensively than they had in 1991 and Japan, armed with umpteen exiled New Zealanders, would run them ragged. In a tough group, Wales would find themselves toughed into oblivion.

Perspectives change, though, especially when a side beats France and England in the space of three games, pops over to South America and wins back-to-back Tests in the inhospitable surroundings of Buenos Aires, and then sees off South Africa for the first time in history. Out of nowhere, Wales have joined Australia as the only racing certainties to claim an automatic quarter-final berth. Coincidentally, they are likely to play each other. No wonder Cardiff is humming.

Typically, Henry has achieved all this in an apex-over-base kind of way Winning rugby is meant to start up front, but the shrewd New Zealander decided to build from the rear forwards by installing Shane Howarth at full-back and giving Mark Taylor the outside centre position ahead of Allan Bateman, who would have been a shoe-in for any other coach on earth. If Howarth has merely fulfilled expectations, Taylor has been a revelation with his powerful running and hang-'em-high tackling. Henry then decided that Arwel Thomas, the most sublime outside-half of his generation but also the most physically challenged, would not be involved. It was a declaration of intent. Wales would go into this tournament with their eyes open and their fists clenched.

And, with that message in mind, the Welsh forwards began to get real. True, Henry imported some New Zealand know-how on the flank in the shape of Brett Sinkinson, and then installed the foursquare Peter Rogers on the loose head. But it was the native Welsh forwards - the Chris Wyatts and Garin Jenkinses and Craig Quinnells - who suddenly started "filling the shirt", as they say in Lions circles. The pack began to motor in Argentina in the summer and is now in fifth gear. It will take some stopping.

It remains difficult to imagine Wales riding the World Cup wave all the way to the final on the first weekend in November, but, then, it was difficult to imagine them out-scrummaging and out-pointing the Pumas over there on the pampas. Argentina will not be relishing this Friday's curtain-raiser at the Millennium Stadium.


Coach: Graham Henry

Captain: Rob Howley

World Cup record: 1987 - 3rd; 1991 - Failed to reach knock-out stage;

1995 - Failed to reach knock-out stage.

How they qualified: Hosts.

Registered adult players: 17,700.


Shane Howarth (Newport)

Neil Boobyer (Llanelli)

Gareth Thomas (Cardiff)

Dafydd James (Llanelli)

Nick Walne (Cardiff)

Scott Gibbs (Swansea)

Allan Bateman (Northampton)

Mark Taylor (Swansea)

Leigh Davies (Cardiff)

Jason Jones-Hughes (NSW)

Neil Jenkins (Cardiff)

Stephen Jones (Llanelli)

Robert Howley (Cardiff, capt)

David Llewellyn (Newport)

Peter Rogers (Newport)

Andrew Lewis (Cardiff)

David Young (Cardiff)

Ben Evans (Swansea)

Garin Jenkins (Swansea)

Jonathan Humphreys (Cardiff)

Chris Wyatt (Llanelli)

Craig Quinnell (Cardiff)

Mike Voyle (Llanelli)

Andy Moore (Swansea)

Gareth Llewellyn (Harlequins)

Colin Charvis (Swansea)

Geraint Lewis (Pontypridd)

Brett Sinkinson (Neath)

Martyn Williams (Cardiff)

Scott Quinnell (Llanelli)

Key player

NEIL JENKINS (Outside-half))

The ginger jewel can suffer the occasional off day with the boot, but once a decade is well within the acceptable margin of error. As the best goal-kicker in the tournament, Jenkins is worth a minimum six-point start to the Welsh; the longer they stay at the races, the more influential he will become. A home-grown Joel Stransky for the millennium.