Hansen out to prove Wales have mettle to avoid fatal slip-up

Pool D: Untimely war of words with former international outside-half erupts to raise tensions on eve of must-win opener against Canada
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The Independent Online

Perhaps it is just as well that Steve Hansen chose the remaining hours before one of the most crucial games in Wales' history to attack one of their most hallowed players. At least the coach's outburst on criticisms made against him took the focus away from an opening Pool D tie with Canada tomorrow that appears to be such a banana skin it should really be sponsored by Geest.

Lose this and Wales would almost certainly fail to qualify for the quarter-finals of the World Cup, something they have failed to do twice in the four tournaments held thus far.

But make no mistake, this one would hurt the most.

With confidence in the national team at an all-time low, with the domestic game struggling to find its feet in a radical new structure, and with the game across the Severn Bridge at an all-time high, Welsh rugby is desperate for a shot in the arm. And anything but a victory against those belligerent Canucks at the Telstra Dome tomorrow - and further down the line, qualification from a group that is completed by Tonga, Italy and, whisper it, New Zealand - would be a shot directly into the heart of Wales.

On the face of it, the challenge presented by Canada should not unduly worry Hansen's men. Granted, a 10-game losing run that was only put to rest with Test victories against Romania and Scotland in August, means Wales should not be confident of overcoming any challenge right now. But Canada have fared just as badly, against much weaker opposition. Dave Clark's side have won just one of eight games in a nightmarish 2003, including two hugely dispiriting defeats to the United States.

There is also the new-found feeling of optimism in the Welsh camp that points the punter towards the Dragons. Despite his own personal negativity following criticisms made by the former Wales outside-half, Jonathan Davies, Hansen was desperate to emphasise this collective positivity as he named his side to tackle Canada yesterday. "There is a great feeling within the camp, one of excitement bathed with a can't-wait attitude," he said. "We have trained well and are ready for Canada."

Indeed, all week the training has been so directed to tomorrow, that Hansen's line-up has become the best-known secret in Wales since Shirley Bassey's wig. As long ago as last Monday it was accepted that the young Pontypridd outside-half Ceri Sweeney would renew the partnership with the inside centre Iestyn Harris that did so much to topple Scotland two months ago. It was also known that Brent Cockbain would earn a second cap since the Australian's "adoption" this year and join the veteran lock Gareth Llewellyn in the engine room. Sonny Parker, meanwhile, is preferred to Mark Taylor at outside centre while the full-back Kevin Morgan also returns from injury to add punch to the back three with Mark Jones and Gareth Thomas.

Further up front, Hansen is also "happy with the combinations". Duncan Jones, the combative Ospreys loose-head, will be looking to repeat the performance that wrecked the Canadian scrummage when the pair last met in the 32-21 home victory at the Millennium Stadium in November last year, while the back row of Colin Charvis, Martyn Williams and the Llanelli 24-year-old, Dafydd Jones, has more than just a temporary whiff about it. But saying all that, the tight scoreline from Cardiff last year suggests this will be far from a pleasure Dome and that Wales must not take Canada lightly.

"We expect Canada to be very enthusiastic and hard-nosed, in our face the whole time," Hansen warned, echoing the sentiments of Rod Snow, the 33-year-old Canada prop who knows Welsh rugby first hand, having spent more than a decade with Newport. "This is our cup final," he said. "We are not going out there to make up the numbers and be friendly."

Indeed, with their inspirational 37-year-old captain, Al Charron, defying coaches and medical experts alike to recover from an horrific knee injury in June to take the helm, they will fancy their chances. Charron scored a match-winning try in Canada's memorable 26-24 win at Cardiff in 1993 and will be leading a side who their coach says, "will play uncompromising rugby and have been chosen for their toughness and perseverance".

Those two qualities should still not be enough, however, for a Welsh side who must now finally learn to bring their class and conditioning to the fore.