Hansen's wholesale changes put far too much at risk for fragile Welsh

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The hardest part of a coach's job in these early forays in the World Cup is to decide how to marshall his forces both to win games and to keep all the members of his squad eager and interested.

The hardest part of a coach's job in these early forays in the World Cup is to decide how to marshall his forces both to win games and to keep all the members of his squad eager and interested.

If I was in that position, and thank the Lord I'm not, I wouldn't have any doubts. I would start with my best side, or near to it, in every game, whoever the opposition. Once you are certain of qualifying you can give second-string players a chance because the result does not matter. But when it does, I wouldn't run the slightest risk and so would go for continuity.

I reckon Clive Woodward has that sort of approach. As commendably as they played, Georgia were never going to be a threat but the England coach began with his strongest side. Once he felt the match was won and his side had had a decent run-out, he made liberal use of his replacements. If England beat South Africa today, he can afford to tinker against Samoa and Uruguay.

I notice Australia are playing their strongest team against Romania today. The situation is slightly different for them because, unlike England, they are still searching for top form so they need match practice.

I would have thought that the same applied to Wales, and that having demonstrated a promising attacking style against Canada the coach, Steve Hansen, would have persevered with it against Tonga tomorrow.

Before the tournament began, however, Hansen had decided what his line-ups for the first two games would be and informed his players accordingly. Thus Wales have made eight changes, and I don't think that is a good idea.

Iestyn Harris made a big impact playing at inside-centre against Canada. Apart from his excellent kicking, he brought a cutting edge and a new fluency to the Welsh back play that could play a telling part in the matches ahead. By putting him on the bench tomorrow, Wales are taking away the opportunity of developing further the improvement their backs showed against Canada.

I think the selected team can do well, but the Tongans will be fighting furiously to save their last chance of qualifying and I would feel happier if Wales were playing with a line-up carrying plenty of confidence from a winning performance.

I can understand the desire to give every player a chance to show his worth and to maintain the squad's competitive nature, but this is the World Cup. It comes once every four years and one slip-up can ruin everything. That's why you should play your best team, however harsh it may be on those who are not in it.

Welsh rugby has had a hard and miserable time and it has been a long battle to put together a blend that has prospects of a better future. Iestyn Harris is central to that improvement and I regret that he and the players who responded to him last week are denied this opportunity to develop the cohesion and rhythm they showed then.

When Harris first came from league, I said it would take him a long time to get accustomed to union, but it was just as important for union players to get used to him. It is finally happening and we saw against Canada how Sonny Parker, Kevin Morgan, Gareth Thomas and Mark Jones were running off him and making the most of openings. I'm not saying other players couldn't do the same, but these players proved that they could, and the more they play together the more instinctive their understanding will become.

None of this is a criticism of the players, but we don't have any time left to experiment. I thought Wales played the August internationals to discover what their best formation was.

There was no reason why Hansen shouldn't have tinkered with the team a little. Against Canada the forwards did not look as sure and settled as the backs, and bringing Iestyn Thomas into the front row and giving Alix Popham a run at No 8 were good ideas because they don't disrupt the team's organisation in the way that breaking up the backs does.

Ireland and Scotland have also made changes but theirs are not so fundamental. Ireland are still dithering between David Humphreys and Ronan O'Gara at outside-half but their styles are so similar that it does not affect the team plan.

Having not played well against Japan, and having lost the flanker Andrew Mower, Scotland were obliged to make changes. But the changes they need to make are tactical. They must keep it tight, dominate the set pieces, control the ball and get the defence right. They can't afford another loose game when they meet the USA and Fiji.