Alan Watkins: Hansen's farcical excuses miss point and fail to hide Welsh shortcomings

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The Independent Online

Two days before Saturday's match, a friend, an England supporter, asked me how I thought it would go. England by 20 points, I replied. He said he hoped I was right but that he was not as confident as I was. In fact I was not really sure at all. Even so, my prediction was not based on patriotism for, as readers of this column may have noticed, my loyalties lie elsewhere. Nor was it guesswork.

The England forwards were, I reasoned, strong enough to absorb anything South Africa might throw at them in the first half. In the second half, or, more likely, the fourth quarter, the superior England backs would come into their inheritance. I reckoned on two England tries worth, with Jonny Wilkinson doing the converting, a total of 14 points. I also thought he would end up with a further six-point kicking advantage over his South African equivalent, Louis Koen.

Well, I was right to within one point about the margin. But I was wrong about the way it was attained. Wilkinson's kicking superiority over Koen was worth much more than six points, even without including his two drop goals. And the England backs looked as if they would cut loose in the first half rather than in the second.

The South African forwards lasted longer than I had expected and should give New Zealand a run for their money. If Koen had kicked his goals, South Africa might or might not have won the match. But they would certainly have gone into half-time with the advantage over England.

There is a parallel here with the Lions tour of 1997. If South Africa had played Joel Stransky instead of Henry Honiball, he would have equalled, and maybe excelled, the kicking feats of Neil Jenkins - the Wilkinson of his day. His successor in the Wales side, Stephen Jones, did not have such a consistent time against Tonga on Sunday, to put it politely. Afterwards both the coach, Steve Hansen, and the captain, Colin Charvis, said the wet weather in Canberra had not suited them. They were referring not so much to Jones' place-kicking as to the disjointed performance of the entire side.

As an explanation - or, rather, an excuse - that is rich, not to say fruity. Those boys were brought up to play rugby in wet weather. In South Wales it does little else but rain. I know. I was there. And climatic conditions in the Principality have not changed since I left. True, the soft, often quite warm rain coming in from the Bristol Channel is different from the harsher, more blustery variety found further east. It is easier to play in, but it makes the ball equally greasy; and it was about the greasy ball that Charvis was primarily complaining, if I understood his observations on television correctly.

But Jones is not, as we know, without challenge. Hansen seems to prefer Ceri Sweeney as the first-choice outside-half, with Iestyn Harris at inside-centre and also doing the kicking. It was, I think, understandable that Jones assumed the kicking tasks against Tonga. That is his speciality, even though Harris had secured a 100 per cent return against Canada. But once Jones had shown he was out of touch, the duties should have been handed over to Harris.

England could well meet Wales in a quarter-final if the Welsh beat Italy on Saturday. Judged by Wales's performance against Tonga, this is now by no means certain.

One difference between Clive Woodward, the England coach, and his Welsh equivalent is that Woodward has a very clear idea of his best side, whereas Hansen is either working to an elaborate plan - if he is, it is too elaborate for me - or making up his mind as he goes along.

It is perhaps too easily assumed that Woodward's method is superior, simply because England are the superior side. But it is by no means self-evident. I thought, for instance, that it was the height of folly for him to risk Wilkinson in the Georgia match. And the sad but, one hopes, temporary departure of Will Greenwood shows that Woodward was too fixed in his ideas about the three-quarters. He manifestly does not have a clear idea about Greenwood's replacement.

Hansen, by contrast, is much too flexible. Not only have we little notion of his first-choice side, he brings on replacements with manic abandon. No wonder Wales are unable to settle down. Hansen should move more in Woodward's direction. But Woodward could also afford to be less rigid in his way of thinking.