Gatland wants '80 minutes of ruthlessness' from Wales
Saturday 13 November 2010
The Fulham of international rugby will today attempt to take the scalp of the Chelsea of international rugby.
At least, that is what Warren Gatland believes the Millennium Stadium will be watching this afternoon as Wales try to record just a second win in their last 12 matches against Tri-Nations opposition.
Of course, regular observers of the Premier League would testify that the likes of the Cottagers tend to put one over on the "Big Three" rather more often than the single victory Wales have celebrated over the Springboks in 103 years. But you could see where Gatland was coming from when he used the obligatory round-ball analogy to sum up his side's task in the autumn series.
"In football terms, we are going out every week and having a crack against Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal," he said. "We are a mid-table team trying to improve ourselves by playing against the best. To beat one of them we have to maintain ruthlessness and concentration for 80 minutes."
Gatland's frustration that they cannot quite manage to achieve that aim is palpable. As he says, Wales have developed the habit of "starting well and dropping the tempo, or starting poorly and then picking it up"; although last Saturday witnessed a variation on this theme when the forwards started well and then picked it up while the backs started poorly before dropping the tempo.
That failing has been the main talking point in Wales since the 25-16 defeat to Australia, with the performances of the half-backs, Mike Phillips and Stephen Jones, coming under harsh scrutiny. "Yes, there has been some criticism of the nine and 10, two Lions, and they are under pressure," said the skills coach, Rob Howley, himself a great scrum-half. "But then to be fair, I was never complimented by Gareth Edwards when I was playing and Mike has been. And that's good enough for us."
Joking apart, Howley recognises that Phillips and particularly Jones have been told to "mix their game and control". He added: "Hopefully, there'll be rhythm in our game that wasn't evident against Australia." The Welsh camp are optimistic the cutting edge will return, not least because of the presence of James Hook at centre, as Lee Byrne resumes at full-back. "Creativity has been the buzzword this week and in Hooky we have one of the most creative backs in the northern hemisphere," said Howley, before referring to the 6ft 4in, 17st teenaged debutant on the wing.
"There is a better balance and shape in terms of the back line this week and with his physicality, George [North] is obviously going to add to that," said Howley. "It's a big challenge for an 18-year-old to come up against Bryan Habana. Of course, there will be a few high balls coming in his direction. But he's a good kid and I'm sure he will have huge impact on the game."
As will the closed roof. While Gatland chose to keep it open against the fleet-footed Aussies, the world champions offer a more direct threat. To be fair, there are forward-obsessed Duck XVs who would want protecting from the weather in Cardiff these last few days, yet there is little doubt Wales will seek to be expansive. And if the pack can produce a display like that of seven days ago then it is possible to envisage an end to South Africa's 11-match winning run against the Dragonhood.
After their demolition of the Wallaby scrum, the front row of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones will certainly be full of confidence, especially when they remember back to June 2009 and Loftus Versfeld. The Lions trio were all over their counterparts but just when it seemed they would play a starring role in a second-Test victory, so Jenkins' cheekbone went crunch and Jones' shoulder went pop. This is the first time they have played against South Africa as a collective since then and it is fair to say they are looking forward to renewing acquaintance with the likes of Tendai "The Beast" Mtawarira.
But will the rest be so enthused in facing Victor Matfield – the captain who, with his 103rd appearance, will become his country's record cap holder – and Bakkies Botha at lock as well as a back row featuring Juan Smith and Pierre Spies? It will be critical that they are, just as the back three must deal with the aerial onslaught launched by the boots of Ruan Pienaar and Morne Steyn. If they can, then a rare premier scalp could well be the reward.
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