Contrary to reports, some of which are based more on wishful thinking than anything else, Graham Henry is not drinking at the last-chance saloon. His sidekick Dai Young, who despite his name was becoming an old timer, may have made his last exit through the swing doors, but Henry is still the only sheriff in town.
In one sense rugby has become more and more like football: the pressure on coaches to deliver and the subsequent penalty if they do not has grown with professionalism. Although not in Wales, the price for failure there was always high. Some of the supporters who were happy to call Henry the Great Redeemer have lost faith, and the New Zealander's reputation since the summer has taken successive hits, beginning with the Lions in Australia.
What followed, for the Principality, was a lot worse. Wales played like glorified nondescripts against Ireland and Argentina at the Millennium Stadium, suffering defeats that helped to persuade Young to relinquish the captaincy and retire from international rugby.
Henry admits he is not immune to the criticism, but even if the Welsh Rugby Union had a change of heart it would cost them a small fortune to pay him off. And they don't have a small fortune. Secondly, there is no point in replacing Henry unless they have a world-class coach to replace him with. And they do not. The marriage is for better or worse, at least until the World Cup in 2003, when it is possible that the former Canterbury coach Steve Hansen, now on the WRU payroll, will be the successor.
In the meantime, Henry and his new captain, Scott Quinnell, have the opportunity today of deflecting the flak when they play Australia in Cardiff. Both Henry and his counterpart Eddie Jones have got their excuses in early. Wales were not spoilt for choice, with 14 players unavailable for selection because of injury. As for Fast Eddie, who has had a torrid introduction to Europe with defeats to England at Twickenham and France in Marseilles, he has resorted to pointing out that one-off international matches are meaningless. "Losing such games doesn't mean that the opposition are better than you,'' Jones said. "A truer test is provided by a series of matches, like the Lions tour. Australia lost the first Test but proved themselves the stronger team in the end.''
On this short tour the Wallabies have proved very little except that they have not been playing like world champions, but then it's a misleading moniker. They won the World Cup in Cardiff in 1999, two long years ago. In the quarter-finals they knocked out Wales 24-9, which was bad enough for the home country but even worse for the referee, Colin Hawke, who needed a police escort from the ground to his hotel. Hawke suffered such personal abuse he locked himself in his room.
Henry is beginning to know the feeling, but should he pull off a victory today there will again be an air of redemption at the Millennium. Wales showed a greater urgency in the win over Tonga last weekend and although they have been forced into four changes, the side look more dangerous, particularly with Jamie Robinson getting his first start at centre. He will play alongside his club-mate Iestyn Harris, who continues his crash course in the 15-man game. At least Harris won't be crashing into Daniel Herbert and Nathan Grey, the Wallabies' first-choice centres, who are both injured. They are replaced by Elton Flatley and Graeme Bond.
With Allan Bateman and Anthony Sullivan failing to go the distance against the Tongans, Wayne Proctor, who won the first of his 38 caps against Australia at Cardiff Arms Park in 1992, comes in on the right wing, Gareth Thomas switching to the left.
For Australia, Ben Tune, who came on as a second-half replacement against France and scored a try, displaces Chris Latham on the wing, which is tough as he has hardly had a pass in two matches. An even higher-profile casualty is Justin Harrison, the Brumbies lock who sprang to prominence when he did the unthinkable in the final Test against the Lions by stealing a vital line-out ball from Martin Johnson. Matt Cockbain of Queensland is preferred.
Australia dreaded the retire-ment of John Eales and he is proving a hard act to follow, not just in the second row but as a leader. George Gregan is still coming to terms with the captaincy, as is Fast Eddie with the novel experience of defeat.
Henry will be able to recall his Lions, Neil Jenkins, Martyn Williams and Dafydd James, for the Six Nations' Championships, which starts in February, but right now he would settle for a major performance against Australia.
Unlike Jones, Henry may not regard today as a one-off but more an extension of his ill-fated adventure Down Under. To skin the Wallabies in Cardiff would be a huge feather in the Wales cap for the one-time Lions coach.
At times in the passionless defeats against Ireland and Argentina, the team looked as if they were playing for neither Henry or their country. That will not be the case this afternoon, but for Wales to cause an upset three figures in particular will have to make their mark: Quinnell, Harris and Robert Howley, who makes his 54th appearance, making him Wales's most capped scrum-half.
Quinnell has not been the fastest player to adapt to professionalism but he has raised his game and the responsibility of the captaincy should suit him; Harris has been blooded earlier than expected and is showing signs of repaying the investment and faith placed in him; while Howley, injured in Australia, will be renewing his acquaintance with Gregan.
"As I missed the last Test for the Lions it is fair to say the score is 1-1 between George and I,'' Howley said. They meet again on Wednesday at the same venue when Howley captains the Barbarians against the Wallabies.Reuse content