Alan Watkins On Rugby: Mauled Lions' scars take time to heal

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The Independent Online

On Saturday morning the bookmaker William Hill was offering 11-4 against Wales and 1-4 Australia. My son thought Wales were a good bet at those odds so invested (as the bookmakers like to put it) £20 in them and urged me to do likewise.

Even though the odds were attractive, I did not think my native land would pull it off. I never bet patriotically. So when, last season, I invested £100 in Wales to win the Six Nations Championship at 9-1, it was because I thought that, at good odds, they had a good chance.

The encouraging aspect of the Cardiff performance on Saturday was that Wales were approaching the standard which enabled them to win that competition earlier in the year.

I have always take an avuncular interest in Shane Williams, because he comes from a village, Glanaman, just up the road from where I grew up and he attended the same school, though it had been turned into a comprehensive by the time he was there. He both scored and made one try and he would have made another if Stephen Jones had not dropped the ball.

Williams made an interesting comment afterwards: only now, he said, was he beginning to regain his confidence after the Lions' summer tour of New Zealand. There must be other players in the same position. Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Lions tours do more harm to many individuals than they do good.

Iain Balshaw has never recovered from the previous trip to Australia managed by Graham Henry. Ben Cohen is only beginning to regain his old appetite after going on the same tour. Colin Charvis suffered similarly; was not picked for the subsequent New Zealand trip; and is now playing as well as ever in, what I believe, is his best position of No 6. There were those who said at the time that he was unlucky not to be picked for Sir Clive Woodward's expedition. But perhaps it was a blessing.

Wales showed, as they did last season, that their wins are not so much a matter of luck - though that certainly enters into it - as a question of small margins. After a quarter of an hour they should have been 10 points up, and it could easily have been 17. Instead they found themselves 7-3 down following an opportunistic break by Mat Rogers. Why Australia are trying to turn Rogers, an excellent centre or full-back, into an outside-half when they already possess two fine exponents of that position in Stephen Larkham and Matt Giteau continues to elude me.

Time and again Wales patiently put a movement together only to make a mistake. And the try count, for what it is worth, was 3-2 in Australia's favour, or 3-1 if you omit Wales' penalty try. This is my own inclination; all the more so if the offence which led to the award occurs in the front row.

I am not saying it happened on this occasion: but all too often a skilful and experienced prop can commit an offence with the intention of persuading the referee that the opposing front row were at fault. And all too often the ploy is successful.

What surprises me is that the Australians have persisted in regarding the scrum as a mere formality designed to restart the game. It is surprising because they like winning so much. It may be that the influence of rugby league, perhaps stronger in Australia than it is anywhere else, accounts for the neglect of the scrum. Or it may be that the Super 12 competition, with the referees' insistence on getting on with the game, is partly to blame.

Wales are, by contrast, fairly well endowed in this area. Many observers were surprised that the front row placed the Australians under almost as much pressure as England had exerted two weeks previously. When Gethin Jenkins returns - presumably at loose head, though he can play on either side - they will be even stronger.

I hope, without much expectation of fulfilment, that the Wales coach Mike Ruddock picks an entire reserve front row to sit on the bench. A forward such as Jonathan Thomas or Dafydd Jones would be perfectly capable of providing cover for the whole of the back five.

After the exertions of the early winter - for autumn is surely long over - it seems to be that the European order leading up to Wales' defence of their Six Nations crown, is: 1 France, 2 England, 3 Wales, 4 Scotland, 5 Ireland, 6 Italy.

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