Wales ready to take a small step on way up the ladder

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The Independent Online

Wales, the first of the home countries to arrive in Australia, have been swimming with the fishes. After landing in Sydney last Tuesday, they became acquainted with sharks and stingrays in Manly Aquarium. Quoted at 250-1 by the bookmakers, Wales are regarded as one of the minnows in the World Cup.

It was a different story when the tournament was launched down under in 1987. For all bar New Zealand it was a voyage of discovery. "Most of the teams had just a couple of training sessions and then arrived at the tournament,'' Richard Moriarty, the Swansea lock who captained Wales 16 years ago, said.

"The All Blacks were something else. They were professional in everything they did eight years before the game went professional. They had left nothing to chance, they were very fit and athletic and were basically operating on a different scale to everybody else. What was also an eye-opener was that their players were everywhere - in television commercials, on the radio, and on advertising posters. You couldn't escape them. The talk was that half- a-dozen of them were on their way to their first million.''

The Welsh players, on the other hand, were so strapped for cash they sold their alternative kit - green jerseys instead of the traditional red - to any interested buyer.

"I thought our squad was as good as most,'' Moriarty said. "We had a strong pack and exciting young backs like Jonathan Davies, Ieuan Evans and John Devereux. I thought we were capable of reaching the last four.'' On a foul day in Wellington - one of the spectators huddled in the stand was Spike Milligan - Wales beat Ireland 13-6, and then Tonga 29-16 in a ferocious encounter at Palmerstone North. The Bridgend wing Glen Webbe, the victim of a flying head-butt, and the prop Stuart Evans were invalided out of the tournament and had to fly home immediately after the match.

Wales got to the last eight with a 40-9 victory over Canada, Ieuan Evans scoring four tries. For the quarter-final against England, who had a low-key build-up in Australia, Wales flew to Brisbane.

"The English players were banging their own drum but I was confident that we were better than them,'' Moriarty said. "England were not a daunting proposition.'' Wales, with the help of a Devereux interception, won 16-3. England, inconsolable, had reached rock bottom, but almost from that day on the fortunes of the two countries would take a dramatic turn.

While England went home to embark on a radical overhaul, Wales were smashed 49-6 by the All Blacks in the semi-finals, a traumatic result that was camouflaged by a 22-21 win over the Wallabies for third place.

Next month, Wales and England are scheduled to meet again in the quarter-finals. In Pool D, Wales are expected to finish runners-up to New Zealand by beating Canada, Tonga and Italy. At least, that's the goal of their coach, Steve Hansen, although he admits that, in world terms, "we are not at the top, we are not at the bottom, we are somewhere in between''. Most observers thought they were lower than that after the hammering they took at the hands of the England second XV at Cardiff in August.

"The experience of being criticised so roundly has given us greater resolve,'' Martyn Williams said. The Cardiff flanker was controversially overlooked for the captaincy by Hansen, who instead handed it to Colin Charvis. "The warm-up games started badly and Steve Hansen came under great pressure,'' Will-iams said. "It was ridiculous. It would have been a disaster to have got rid of him so close to the tournament. Against England, the coach didn't let anyone down. We did."

Wales have a curious itinerary. They travelled from Sydney to Canberra by coach and will journey to Melbourne this week, where they play Canada on 12 October. Then it's back to the capital to prepare for the Tongans. In Canberra, they are staying in apartments, cooking their own meals and doing their own washing. It is as well that before they left the Principality, Tesco provided them with dried fruits, sweets, and rice puddings.

As for England, self-catering does not form part of their World Cup experience.