Alan Watkins: Hansen must give up preconceptions to nurture mysterious new magic

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The Independent Online

After two minutes of the New Zealand v Wales match, I turned off the sound on the television but kept the picture. Joe Rokocoko had just scored a try, Leon MacDonald had converted it and their team looked as if they would overwhelm my native land. I was prepared to watch this spectacle in silence but not when it was accompanied by yells of triumph.

Within minutes - well before Mark Taylor's try in the 10th minute - I turned the volume up. This was because Wales were clearly not going to be a pushover, whether in the literal or the metaphorical sense. And so it proved, in one of the finest matches ever seen in any Rugby World Cup.

Their performance remains a mystery, to me at any rate. True, they had been improving, slowly but perceptibly, in the previous group matches. But they had never before shown such self-confidence and élan. They did the difficult things well, such as retaining and recycling the ball after a tackle. They also did the easy things well, such as passing and catching the ball.

Hardly anyone has mentioned the blow they suffered when Duncan Jones, who had established himself as the first-choice loose-head prop, had to go home because he broke his leg against Italy the week before. The loose-head prop is the most important member of any side because, if you cannot secure the ball on your own put-in, you are finished. He, Robin McBryde and his equally hirsute namesake Adam Jones were turning into a formidable combination.

However, on Sunday, Iestyn Thomas (who had previously claimed the No 1 jersey) did everything that was asked of him. It was presumably injury which led to Adams Jones being taken off after 33 minutes and replaced by Gethin Jenkins, for he seemed to me to be having a very constructive game. With Duncan Jones away, the Wales coach, Steve Hansen, had very little choice about the front row.

With the rest of the side he had more choice. He had made 10 changes, so arousing adverse comment from such luminaries of the game as Jonathan Davies and Ieuan Evans. In a World Cup, they said, you played your best team regardless. I sympathised with them but sided with Hansen.

For one thing, I thought it unfair that backs such as Shane Williams and Garan Evans, and (even if to a lesser extent) forwards such as Jonathan Thomas and Alix Popham, had not thus far been given a fair chance. And, for another thing, I thought it would be madness to risk injury to Wales' best players, Iestyn Harris and Martyn Williams, in a match which they were bound to lose.

Hansen denied having this latter realistic approach. His object, he said, was to allow players to prove themselves who had previously not been given the opportunity. This is what he has now done. Whether he is more pleased at the luxury of choice at his disposal than he is annoyed that his preconceived ideas have been upset I do not know.

It seems to me obvious that Shane Williams has to play against England. He scored a good try, having the wit to run as near to the posts as he could to render the conversion easier. He also made Sonny Parker's try, having left the New Zealand defence virtually stationary in a break from halfway. He made another fine break as well.

In the last two years or so - both under Hansen and under his predecessor, Graham Henry - he has been a victim of the sizeism which is a feature of modern rugby. Indeed he was a victim of it at his and my old school in Ammanford, where he was considered "too small'' even to play scrum-half - the position in which, apparently, he had been taken to Australia by Hansen. I would play him on the left wing again with Mark Jones on the right. This would be hard on Gareth Thomas, but give Wales overwhelming speed on the wings.

The other player who has forced himself into the side is Jonathan Thomas. This would presumably mean a back row of him and Martyn Williams with Colin Charvis at No 8, unless Popham - the only genuine No 8 in the party - is in that position, in which case Thomas would be back where he was before.

It is perhaps odd to talk of Stephen Jones forcing himself back into the side, because to most people he has never left it. But Hansen has made it clear that he regards Ceri Sweeney as the better outside-half. Certainly Sweeney (as a substitute) made the break that led to Shane Williams' try. But Jones, through his chip ahead, brought about Taylor's try. He kicked excellently and was a calming presence throughout. Why not continue with Jones, with Sweeney outside Iestyn Harris?

A famous former Welsh player who was recently awarded the CBE joked that what it stood for was "Can't Beat England'' - though Wales had beaten them often enough in his own day. Last Sunday gave us a glimpse of those days. This Sunday will show whether they have really returned.