Fiji test as Wales eye last eight
Saturday 01 October 2011
There was always a strong possibility Stephen Jones would have to settle for the bench at the World Cup though few could have imagined it was not James Hook keeping him there.
The battle for the revered red No 10 jersey was, it was always assumed, between those two British Lions who shared duties during the 2008 Grand Slam. Yet under the radar has slipped the young pretender Rhys Priestland, now confirmed as first-choice fly-half with his selection against Fiji tomorrow, just a week ahead of a World Cup quarter-final.
"I guess this is the biggest game of my career so far, but I seem to be saying that all the time this year," said the 24-year-old with a relaxed shrug. "First it was big games in the Heineken Cup, then my Wales debut and now here. I guess the further we go then the bigger the games get, but I'm not putting any pressure on myself.
"I used to get really nervous before a game and then stress over every little thing but it really didn't get me very far. Then I realised that I play rugby because I enjoy it and I'm really enjoying myself here. Of course, it's even more enjoyable when you're winning."
Gatland has gone to great lengths to talk up the young Scarlets play-maker who appears unflappable despite his horror miss in the opening game against South Africa, and it raises the question of where Hook will play when he returns to full fitness.
Gatland said: "We've been really happy with the width Rhys has given us. He has a good balance to his game, makes the right decisions at the right times and is combining well with Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts."
Priestland was an innocent by-stander when Wales threw their game plan out the window after the opening exchanges and willingly joined in a game of rugby's equivalent to basketball with the Fijians at the last World Cup.
The result was one of the most entertaining games of rugby at any recent World Cup but that counted for little in the Valleys, or to the then coach, Gareth Jenkins, who was sacked the morning after the 38-34 defeat in Nantes four years ago. But Priestland is unmoved.
"It is very much the same situation as we faced with Samoa. They were supposed to be a bogey-team for Wales at the World Cup but those results had nothing to do with this team and we just crack on and get on with it. It's important we don't go into our shells," said the outside-half.
Priestland, like his captain Sam Warburton, is part of a new generation of Wales players being pressed through in New Zealand, clearly untainted by previous disappointments and already looking to the knock-out stages after their rivals Samoa lost to South Africa.
"I don't think that result will change anything for us. We're obviously happy with the way things have gone but this tournament is all about momentum and we want to go into the next stage on the back of a good win and performance," said Priestland.
Fiji have been the anti-climax of the World Cup so far. They have hinted at so much but were ultimately undone by a failure to build on the success of 2007 and a reliance on old heads while other talents, such as Leinster full-back Isa Nacewa, opted not to come to New Zealand. However, having a crop of young faces with little to lose may yet make them a dangerous prospect for Wales.
Gatland said: "Fiji haven't thrown the ball around as much as we thought up to now, but these youngsters playing with typical Fijian style could put us under pressure. But it's about us having the confidence to play our game."
Wales: L Byrne, G North, S Williams, J Roberts, L Halfpenny, R Priestland, M Phillips; T Faletau, S Warburton (capt), R Jones, L Charteris, B Davies, A Jones, H Bennett, G Jenkins. Replacements L Burns, P James, A-W Jones, A Powell, L Williams, S Jones, J Davies.
Fiji: I Keresoni, A Vulivuli, R Fatiaki, G Lovobalavu, M Tagicakibau, N Little, V Buatava; N Talei (capt), S Matadigo, R Nasiga, W Lewaravu, L Nakarawa, S Somoca, S Koto, W Nailago. Replacements V Veikoso, C Ma'afu, M Ravulo, A Qera, N Kenatale, S Bai, V Goneva.
Referee: W Barnes (Eng). TV ITV1, 5.30-8am.
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