Taylor leads Wales on revenge mission against tourists

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The Independent Online

Generally speaking, the Welsh relish the prospect of a game against Samoa in the same way that Peter Mandelson looks forward to questions about his accommodation arrangements: with trepidation on the one hand and a feeling of impending embarrassment on the other. The boyos from the valleys have played the islanders three times since they last beat them in 1988, and have leaked the best part of 100 points in the process. When Va'aiga Tuigamala and company completed a straight hat-trick of victories in Cardiff in October of last year, the Millennium Stadium was so silent you could hear them laughing in Apia.

Generally speaking, the Welsh relish the prospect of a game against Samoa in the same way that Peter Mandelson looks forward to questions about his accommodation arrangements: with trepidation on the one hand and a feeling of impending embarrassment on the other. The boyos from the valleys have played the islanders three times since they last beat them in 1988, and have leaked the best part of 100 points in the process. When Va'aiga Tuigamala and company completed a straight hat-trick of victories in Cardiff in October of last year, the Millennium Stadium was so silent you could hear them laughing in Apia.

The boot will surely be on the other foot this afternoon; certainly, there will be serious questions asked if Wales fail to turn things around against the least experienced Samoan side to visit these shores in a decade. There will be no Tuigamala on view today, no Paramore or Lima or Leota or Leaupepe. The financial dispute between the full-time, Europe-based professionals and the Samoan union has stripped the Test team bare of know-how, if not of raw talent, to the extent that the scrum-half, Steven So'oialo, and the loose forward, Onehunga Matauiau, are the only survivors of that wonderful World Cup occasion 13 months ago.

Yet the Samoans have infinitely more to gain than their opponents from the contest. True, Wales are capping two new tight forwards in Iestyn Thomas and Deiniol Jones; true, they are giving Arwel Thomas an opportunity to stamp his genius on the pivotal No 10 position and offering the Williams lads, Rhys and Shane, the chance to buy into Graham Henry's vision of a high-intensity running game. The visitors, however, can use this match to lay the foundations for a new era in Pacific rugby.

Given that the Tuigamalas and Leaupepes were well past their best this time last year, the 2003 World Cup was never within their reach. This generation of big-hit merchants will be in their prime in three years' time. And anyway, it is hard to imagine the new front row of Maligi, Mealamu and Vaeluaga being any worse than the Reidy-Leota-Ale combination that spent the entire 1999 tournament in reverse gear. Samoa may not win today - indeed, they will go under by 30-plus if the Welsh half-backs are given elbow room - but they will be a better, stronger team for the experience.

Wales play under the Swansea centre Mark Taylor for the first time - another of Henry's little markers for the future. "I think David Young (the injured Cardiff prop) will be captain for the Six Nations', unless he's not fit," said Taylor this week. "These games against Samoa, the United States and South Africa are a testing ground for me, a good way of seeing whether I'm up to the job. I chatted the captaincy through with several people after Graham offered it to me; I wanted to make sure it was the right thing for me, both as a person and a player. I don't want anything to interfere with my level of performance, especially in Lions year."

Lions business is still a long way off, though, and there is an entire plantation's worth of banana skins lying ahead of the contenders over the next six months or so. It is purely an accident of the international schedule that Taylor's team should be opening their account against the one banana skin they have found impossible to avoid over the last nine years, but, for those who believe in fate, today's match will be compelling in the extreme.

Another of rugby's developing countries, Japan, will unveil a new-look side when they play Ireland at Lansdowne Road this afternoon. Unlike the team that under-performed horribly in the World Cup, this is almost entirely Japanese in terms of personnel: for Greg Smith read Koichi Kubo, for Andrew McCormick read Reo Kawai, for Jamie Joseph read Takeomi Ito. There is still a character by the name of Karl Todd in the second row, but the coach Seiji Hirao is clearly moving away from the mercenary option.

All the same, Ireland will be bitterly disappointed if they post less than 60 points.

WALES (v Samoa, Millennium Stadium, 3.0): R Williams (Cardiff); A Bateman (Northampton), M Taylor (Swansea, capt), S Gibbs (Swansea), S Williams (Neath); A Thomas (Swansea), R Howley (Cardiff); I Thomas (Ebbw Vale), G Jenkins (Swansea), B Evans (Swansea), I Gough (Newport), D Jones (Ebbw Vale), G Lewis (Swansea), C Charvis (Swansea), S Quinnell (Llanelli). Replacements: D James (Llanelli), N Jenkins (Cardiff), R Moon (Llanelli), N Budgett (Ebbw Vale), J Griffiths (Swansea), S John (Cardiff), A Lewis (Cardiff).

SAMOA: H Patu; T Faasua, F Soolefai, F Tuilagi, F Toala; Q Sanft, S So'oialo; J Maligi, L Mealamu, A Vaeluaga, P Asi, S Poaching, O Palepoi, O Matauiau (capt), T Veiru. Replacements: D Tafaemaalii, M Schwalger, S Tone, J Mamea, I Evalu, A Toleafoa, P Misa.

IRELAND (v Japan, Lansdowne Road, 3.0): G Murphy (Leicester); D Hickie (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster), S Horgan (Leinster), T Howe (Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster); P Clohessy (Munster), K Wood (Harlequins, capt), J Hayes (Munster), P Johns (Ulster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), A Ward (Ulster), K Dawson (London Irish), A Foley (Munster). Replacements: F Sheahan (Munster), J Fitzpatrick (Ulster), G Longwell (Ulster), E Miller (Leinster), D Humphreys (Ulster), R Henderson (Wasps).

JAPAN: D Ohata; M Oda, R Kawai, H Namba, P Tuidraki; K Hirose, K Ohara (capt); T Fumihara, N Yasuda, N Nakamura, H Sugawara, K Todd, H Tanuma, K Kubo, T Ito.

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