Wales look to the heavens for help
Saturday 06 November 2010
Any doubts as to how Wales intend to beat Tri-Nations opposition for just the second time in 11 efforts were put to rest yesterday when, for the first time in his tenure, coach Warren Gatland insisted on the Millennium Stadium roof being open.
If the Wallabies are to be flattened, it is the home tight- five who are going to do the flattening. Preferably face first into the mud.
The Welsh camp were keen to stress this was not a negative move as the forecast is fine. But, as the downpour continued into the evening, those predictions looked more opportunistic than ever. Judging by the smirks of a few of the Welsh management during training at the stadium yesterday, a deluge would not be unwelcome.
Dismiss the brave but rather outrageous attempt by the skills coach, Rob Howley, to claim that Wales were exposing themselves to the elements with an eye on next year's showpiece Down Under. "The big picture for us is there is a Rugby World Cup in New Zealand next year, and we know the conditions having toured there in the summer," he said, somehow keeping a straight face. The truth is rather simpler.
After watching Australia beat New Zealand in Hong Kong last weekend, and after seeing this redoubtable attacking outfit improve steadily over the Tri-Nations series, it is blindingly obvious that it is from Nos 1 to 5 where Wales' best chances lie. Gatland's men have suffered from debilitating injuries in the back row and in the backs, but in the engine room they will be operating at full throttle. The Lions front-row is reunited for just the second time since that 2009 tour in South Africa, while in behind Alun Wyn Jones and Bradley Davies are the two first-choice locks. Expect the last-named to take it to Australia.
"I wouldn't mind putting the ball in Bradley Davies' hands as much as possible," said Gatland, missing his main ball-carriers in Ryan Jones and Jamie Roberts. "We're giving him a bit of licence. He's a player that's really come on in the last 12 months."
All very encouraging, although Gatland would be just as thrilled to see the scrum making early inroads. The Australians' vulnerability in the set-piece is one of international rugby's great cliches, but, as Gatland pointed, out it can be a key area. "If there is one way of beating Australia it's to put them under pressure up front," said the Kiwi. "It's psychological. I think when England won down there in the summer it started from a very, very dominant scrum. At times, it has been frail and at other times it's been on song. It depends."
Last year, was a case of the latter. "The players have spoken how they want to make a few amends about how they were embarrassed up front that day," said Gatland, referring to the 33-12 humbling. Any repeat of this will inevitably see the Australian points-machine crank up, although with a 20-year-old – James O'Connor – assuming the kicking duties from Matt Giteau, this might have also have influenced Wales' open-roof philosophy.
"The problem with the roof being closed is that kickers who tend to struggle at other venues come to the Millennium and kick 100 per cent," Gatland said. "Sometimes you wouldn't mind the elements having an effect." Particularly, when the kicker is only just out of nappies, he might have added.
Saying that, Gatland did pay homage to O'Connor's last-minute, touchline kick last Saturday which gave Australia victory. That win will have imbued them with much confidence and, if they gain so much as parity in the forwards, it could be a long afternoon for Wales. They still have their talented attackers in Shane Williams and James Hook but the query must be whether they can be put in positions to hurt the visitors.
There is plenty expected of flankers Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton, who must rise to the immense challenge set by the destructive openside, David Pocock. In fact, there are threats everywhere and for that reason it is wise to play this under the heavens. There has been much made of the stadium only being only two-thirds full and £65-a-pop is a lot to get rained upon. But an overdue win against a southern hemisphere giant would warm them up. However it is achieved.
Wales: J Hook; W Harries, T Shanklin, A Bishop, S Williams; S Jones, M Phillips; G Jenkins, M Rees (capt), A Jones, B Davies, A W Jones, D Lydiate, S Warburton, J Thomas. Replacements: H Bennett, P James, D Jones, M Williams, R Rees, D Biggar, C Czekaj.
Australia: K Beale; J O'Connor, A Ashley-Cooper, M Giteau, D Mitchell: Q Cooper, W Genia; B Robinson, S Moore, B Alexander, M Chisholm, N Sharpe, R Elsom (capt), D Pocock, B McCalman. Replacements: S Faingaa, J Slipper, D Mumm, R Brown, L Burgess, B Barnes, L Turner. Referee: W Barnes (England).
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