The Welsh are becoming increasingly familiar with no-win situations at international level. Steve Hansen's ragtag and bobtail bunch have not managed a victory for the best part of a year - but the task awaiting the hapless Red Dragonhood against England's reserve team in Cardiff this weekend is so monumentally thankless that they must be sorely tempted to tell the coach where he can stick his World Cup preparations. If they happen to prevail over second-string opposition, there will be little glory. Should they lose, they will be laughed out of town.
Forty-eight hours after his opposite number, Clive Woodward, had announced a starting formation featuring precisely one of the players who participated in the ground-breaking triumph over Australia in Melbourne two months ago - Joe Worsley, the Wasps loose-forward who played the last 26 minutes of that game as a replacement for Richard Hill, was the exception concerned - Hansen named what looked suspiciously like a full-strength side based around two of the Principality's new regional teams: Llanelli Scarlets and Celtic Warriors. The potential for psychological catastrophe is far from inconsiderable.
Stephen Jones, the 25-year-old Llanelli goal-kicker, will lead his countrymen from outside-half, and will be surrounded by fellow Stradeyites old and new, including Chris Wyatt, a notoriously enthusiastic party animal who has suppressed his good-time habits sufficiently to earn another shot at nailing down a place in the second row. Wyatt is a high-class performer when the mood takes him and, assuming he is serious about expending his considerable energies during the hours of daylight rather than after dark, he should form a potent partnership with the excellent Robert Sidoli.
Only Gareth Thomas has been retained following the defeat in Dublin last weekend, and the long-serving wing joins Sidoli, Rhys Williams, Mark Taylor, Gareth Cooper, Iestyn Thomas, Martyn Williams and Dafydd Jones in seeking revenge for the 26-9 defeat at the hands of a much stronger England side in last season's Six Nations' Championship. That game was notable for the absence of Jason Leonard, the first 100-cap front-rower in rugby history, from the white-shirted ranks, but the venerable Harlequin will be present and correct this time, and as captain, too.
"It's a fairly unusual situation, in that players are looking to win a place in the World Cup 30 as well as win the match," he admitted yesterday. "But the priority has to be the team performance. If some people try to play the game entirely for their own ends... well, the coaches are a pretty astute lot. The pressure is definitely on, though. I haven't the faintest idea how many props Clive is proposing to take to Australia this autumn, so it will have to be a case of leading by example and putting myself at the top of the list - no easy matter, because in the 13 years I've been a part of the set-up, I can't remember a more competitive situation."
Leonard has captained England once before, against Argentina in 1996, and celebrated with what can only be described as a try-scoring jamboree. (He scored once, but it was his first trip across the opposition whitewash and he has yet to manage a second). Given the selectorial logjam, not least in his own position, a couple of five-pointers would not go amiss.
As expected, Austin Healey will be among the England replacements at the Millennium Stadium. His versatility - he counts scrum-half, stand-off and wing among his areas of expertise - makes him a hot candidate for World Cup inclusion, but Woodward will not consider him unless he proves his fitness after months of injury hassle.
WALES (v England, Millennium Stadium Saturday): R Williams (Cardiff Blues); M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), M Taylor (Llanelli Scarlets), S Parker (Celtic Warriors), G Thomas (Celtic Warriors); S Jones (Llanelli Scarlets, capt), G Cooper (Celtic Warriors); I Thomas (Llanelli Scarlets), R McBryde (Llanelli Scarlets), G Jenkins (Celtic Warriors), R Sidoli (Celtic Warriors), C Wyatt (Llanelli Scarlets), C Charvis (unattached), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), D Jones (Llanelli Scarlets). Replacements: G Williams (Cardiff Blues), A Jones (Neath-Swansea Ospreys), J Thomas (Neath-Swansea Ospreys), G Thomas (Neath-Swansea Ospreys), M Phillips (Llanelli Scarlets), G Henson (Neath-Swansea Ospreys), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues).
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