Gatland rings changes after great Wales giveaway
Sunday 21 November 2010
Warren Gatland's charitable side went missing in the immediate aftermath of Wales's dull draw with Fiji on Friday night, when for the first time in international rugby a try was signalled to the crowd by Pudsey Bear. The "BBC Children in Need" match attracted thousands of youngsters to the Millennium Stadium, many of them keen to cheer the new teenage star George North, but Gatland's announcement almost as soon as the final whistle went that the captaincy would pass from Ryan Jones to Matthew Rees for next Saturday's ever more daunting visit of the All Blacks surprised some who are much longer in the tooth.
"It's certainly not something he'd normally do," said the back-rower Jonathan Thomas, when asked about Gatland's dressing-room revelation, which was then repeated to the media. "I'm not too sure why he said that. He was angry, we were all gutted as players and Gats as head coach was fuming about the way we played, full stop."
Rees, the Scarlets hooker who is a less demonstrative and less experienced captain than Jones, has got the nod in part because he is guaranteed his place against New Zealand. A rejigged back row may see the improving Dan Lydiate combine with Thomas and Martyn Williams, with Andy Powell blasting off the bench, and Jones's place in the squad of 22 uncertain.
It may also be that Gatland, with two wins in his last 12 matches (albeit,six of them against Tri-Nations teams), yet the ink still wet on a contract extended to 2015, considered a positive act of any description was his highest priority after a match full of errors; not least Jones's in diving at the feet of Ifereimi Rawaqa behind a ruck to concede the added-time penalty which allowed Fiji to make the final score 16-16. Tellingly, there were no exultant celebrations from the Islanders, just a shake of hands and a knowing look into their opponents' eyes. The teams will meet again in the World Cup in 10 months' time, and festering disappointment is not in Gatland's make-up. Rees promised yesterday he would gather the senior players tomorrow for a high-level pow-wow. As Thomas put it: "We're bitterly disappointed at the way we played and we're ashamed of that result. We've just go to look at staying tight as a group now, with a big game next week. We know we can compete against the best sides, we showed that in glimpses in the summer against New Zealand. But we have to improve a hell of a lot from tonight."
Albert Vulivuli's try for Fiji in the 37th minute – from one of several duff Wales line-outs – was referred to the television official, and the verdict appeared on the stadium's big screens with an animated Pudsey giving the thumbs-up. To a man, the disconsolate Welsh players thanked the crowd of 52,000 – even if many of them seemed immune to the dire stuff played in front of them. A group of 60 lads from Dyffryn Taf School in Whitland wore scarlet cowboy hats and waved their "North is our new hero" banner, fashioned from a sheet. When the object of their affections was denied a probable try by Lee Byrne's failure to give an outside pass, they simply got on with starting another Mexican wave.
North had scored two tries on his debut in the 29-25 defeat by South Africa the previous week, and had a couple of runs against the Fijians which showed a lovely sidestep to go with the power of his 6ft 4ins frame. In the absence of the injured Shane Williams and Leigh Halfpenny, he looks likely to start against the All Blacks, possibly with the recalled Chris Czekaj. "If we play the same way next week we'll get battered," said Lydiate. It was all enough to frighten the kids but they are made of stern stuff in the Valleys and Gatland will expect that by fielding something closer to his first-choice team they will show that on Saturday.
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