Priestland refuses to dwell on what might have been
Would Wales' brilliant No 10 have made the difference in that World Cup semi-final? He tells Chris Hewett he's only looking forward
Compelling as it was, the recent World Cup in New Zealand was short of many things: games in the great rugby city of Christchurch, levelled by successive earthquakes; justice for the eternally put-upon Samoans, done down by the fixture schedulers and their own madnesses in selection; a Fijian side worthy of the name; an England campaign that would be remembered for something other than dwarf-throwing in Queenstown, ball-switching in Dunedin and illegal swimming in Auckland harbour ("Manu: we said we're going on the drink, not in the drink").
Most of all, perhaps, it was missing a stellar performer in the No 10 shirt.
Daniel Carter, the silver-ferned maestro from the host nation, would probably have sent jaws plummeting towards the floor at some point, had he stayed fit. There again, so too might Rhys Priestland of Wales – nowhere near as celebrated as Carter but every bit as impressive in his own quietly organised kind of way until he too fell victim to orthopaedic calamity. "I knew it was bad news the moment it happened," he says, recalling the shoulder injury he suffered at the last knockings of the quarter-final victory over Ireland in Wellington. How did he reach that conclusion? "I quickly realised how painful it was," he replies.
It is at this point that the 24-year-old from Carmarthen strikes precisely the right note. "I was pretty down at first, but then I thought about the players who didn't get to the World Cup at all – people like Matthew Rees and Morgan Stoddart, who had been injured just before the tournament. It struck me that I'd been a lot luckier than some."
Priestland may be a mere nine caps into his international career – he made his breakthrough as recently as August, when he was asked to start at 10 in a warm-up match against England at Twickenham all of 10 minutes before kick-off and played with such assurance that Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, immediately realised that he would have to reassess his thinking on the position – but he is evidently a man who has things in perspective. Asked whether he had returned from All Black country with a sense of self-satisfaction, he shakes his head. "There's been a lot of talk about what we achieved in the competition, but in the end we lost to South Africa, lost to France and were beaten by the Wallabies," he points out. "We have to be disappointed with that, I think."
Clear-minded and acutely analytical, Priestland plays the way he talks. Fizz-bang pyrotechnics are not his thing: James Hook is more obviously the No 10 contender equipped to trip the light fantastic with flashes of individual brilliance, but the longer he spent in the pivot role at the World Cup, the more he looked like an outside centre plucked from his natural environment and given too many things to think about. Priestland, a loader of ammunition for others to fire, has more in common with the third of the men with an immediate claim on the shirt, his Scarlets club-mate Stephen Jones.
A veteran of two Lions tours and the wholly deserving owner of more than 100 Welsh caps, the 33-year-old from Aberystwyth – he turns 34 next week – has been a major part of Priestland's sporting life since returning to Llanelli from a spell in France with Clermont Auvergne in 2006. They train together, kick together and talk rugby together week in, week out, and Priestland is the first to credit the older man with a generosity of spirit that is not always part of a professional player's make-up.
"I still find it strange, starting a game while Stephen's sitting there on the bench," he admits. "It happened during the World Cup, when I was picked ahead of both Stephen and James, but when I came back to Scarlets and I was selected for the big Heineken Cup game at Northampton ... that was a position I hadn't previously been in at club level. Stephen has been great for me. I was just starting when he came back from Clermont and he was happy to give me advice, give me a few pointers. He's been the same ever since, all the way through. He'll never put you down. He's far more interested in helping you get the best out of yourself."
All things considered, then, it was deeply ironic that Jones's failure to make it through the warm-up ahead of the Twickenham match four months ago – he twanged a calf muscle just as the Welsh players were finishing their preparations – effectively presented Priestland with his World Cup opportunity. "I didn't know what was going on," he admits. "I was meant to be playing full-back. My mind went blank, and I remember people coming up and saying: 'Come on, gather your thoughts'. I was disappointed for Stephen. I really mean that. I think he was about to become the most-capped player in Welsh history, so I could only imagine how he was feeling. But it was a big moment for me, obviously. Going into those warm-up matches, I didn't know whether I'd get my chance at 10 before the tournament."
How he took that chance when it came. Blessed with the kind of rugby understanding Jones brings to a game but better able to threaten opponents on the gain-line and more willing to put width on the ball quickly, he might well have made the difference for Wales at the business end of the World Cup. Instead, he could only observe as his countrymen lost by a point to France in the semi-final and then missed out on a podium finish by losing to Australia in the bronze medal match.
Today's resumption of hostilities with the Wallabies at the Millennium Stadium, on the grand occasion of Shane Williams' farewell appearance as a Test player, is therefore a welcome opportunity to return an insult. He will find himself confronting perhaps the single most extraordinary talent in the world game: James O'Connor, the cherubic Queenslander who made his international debut at 18 (while looking about 12) and has since proved himself a natural-born matchwinner of the kind seen all too rarely in any form of team sport.
"He can play," agrees Priestland, the softest of smiles on his face. "In fact, he could probably play anywhere in the back division and be world class. He's a strong runner, a good distributor, he can kick, there's something a bit different about him... I'm under no illusions. But while we need to neutralise him, the Wallabies have a whole bunch of people behind the scrum who can cut loose. They're one of the most threatening sides you can come up against in modern-day rugby."
Plenty to ponder, then, one way or another. Yet, typically, he is happy to turn his thoughts elsewhere, to a game in which he is not participating. This afternoon's cross-generational match between northern and southern hemisphere XVs at Twickenham in aid of the Help for Heroes charity has a special resonance, for Priestland first came to the attention of the wider rugby public when he turned out in the first such game in 2008.
"It was one of the best weeks I've had in rugby," he says. "I remember driving up to London with Dafydd Jones [the Scarlets flanker] thinking I would just be hanging around with a load of old retired players. I mean, I was going to be playing alongside Scott Gibbs! Completely surreal. Both teams were in the same hotel, socialising together, all very relaxed. Then, on the day of the game, Scott gave this team talk.
"I thought: 'God, this game isn't a joke. It's serious'. A couple of younger Welsh players are involved in this one and I've told them what to expect." Just as Stephen Jones would have done.
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