Precious few World Cup semi-finals have been decided anywhere but at the sharp end, and with the two best tight-head props in the sport opposing each other in today's France-Wales tie at Eden Park, it may well be that the only people who actually witness the key acts are those able to see in the dark.
Nicolas Mas, the squat little Catalan from Perpignan, is so handy a performer in the bump-and-bore department that his recovery from injury in time for last weekend's game with England led the red-rose hooker Steve Thompson to mutter: "This changes everything." Likewise, Adam Jones has transformed Welsh fortunes up front since returning to full fitness.
"I don't think I've ever had such a frustrating, annoying, crappy little injury," Jones said yesterday, referring to the elbow problem he picked up while playing for Ospreys in a Heineken Cup match at London Irish nine months ago. "I remember thinking: 'A bent elbow? Christ, what sort of prop am I?' It cost me the Six Nations, that did."
Wales started that tournament without a second Lions Test prop in the loose-head specialist Gethin Jenkins and promptly lost a home game with England first up – a match they would probably have won had their front row been intact. Whatever disappointment they suffered as a result of that defeat has been erased from the memory bank, however. A run to the last four of a World Cup is probably worth a Six Nations Grand Slam, if not two, and with the bloody English back in their box, this is a tournament of Welsh dreams. "There'll be a few tears shed if it ends now, but it would be a crime not to enjoy it while we're still here," the prop said.
Jones is old-school, just as Mas has more than a touch of la vieille école about him. "I respect him," the Welshman said of his opposite number, who will be attacking Jenkins at the scrum today. "Some of us are 120kg-plus, but he's not the biggest, is he? Short and squat, very square. Basically, it's a case of 'all the best, Geth'!" Then, after a pause, he added: "I don't know what it is the French do at the set piece – if you could bottle it and sell it around the rugby world, you'd make yourself a few bob – but they do something. They're a little like the Argentines, but most of what they bring to their scrummaging is their own. We'll need to be right at the top of our game to hold them."
Some of the players have felt the need for a little help on the positive thinking front, but Jones has steered clear of Andy McCann, the squad's resident sports psychologist, even though the mind always plays tricks at moments like these. "I could have done with some psychiatric help eight years ago, when Steve Hansen [the current New Zealand coach who was then in charge of Wales] had me off the field after half an hour," he said. "That was a shock to the system, I can tell you. But you live and learn, don't you? In this tournament, it's been enough to look round at the young players in the squad, draw on their optimism, enjoy their company and revel in being part of a happy camp.
"We've become very close, I think. It showed after the first game against the Springboks, which we all knew we should have won but didn't. That kind of thing can break a weak side, but once we'd got past the initial hurt, we realised that we'd competed with them physically all over the pitch – more than competed; beaten them physically – and that we were good enough to build on that performance. The next game against Samoa was different. Were we on our knees in all those goal-line stands? God yes. They must have felt the game was theirs for the taking, just as we had a few days before. But we were the ones who came through, it was our turn to do a South Africa on someone."
Sometimes, it takes a retired tight-head prop – a player who spent his rugby life dealing with harsh realities – to sense the way things might go in a game so finely balanced that even the bookmakers are reluctant to make a judgement. Last week, just when the more pessimistic England followers were wondering if the French backs might run riot in the quarter-final, the World Cup-winning front-rower from the West Country, Phil Vickery, offered a different perspective. "It's not their backs that worry me," he said before kick-off. "I think they'll get hold of us up front. And if they do, it's 'goodnight Vienna'." Farewells were indeed made to the Austrian capital at close of play.
Thanks to Jones, it is unlikely that the French will enjoy quite the same dominance at close quarters. The man who replaced Vickery in the Lions front row during the Test series in South Africa two years ago is even more accomplished now: if rugby folk sniggered behind their hands when he first materialised on the international scene with his frizzy hair and substantial girth, there is no chortling now. The last laugh has belonged to the man from Morriston for some time, and if he succeeds in anchoring two more winning performances here, he will wear the broadest of smiles for the rest of his natural. "When I speak to the people back home and hear how things are buzzing, I understand more and more about how special this experience is for all of us," he said. "There's so much still to do: I know some of the young guys don't carry any baggage when it comes to losing against the French, but it's still the case that we let ourselves down last time we played them. This will be a hell of a game. But if we can just win this thing, at least the ex-players will have to stop talking about us. We'll have achieved something they didn't."Reuse content