Thomas does trick for Wales

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The Independent Online
AFTER the champagne occasion in Cape Town that ushered in the World Cup, this match was small beer, and even though Wales got their campaign off to a winning start, it was a result that is hardly likely to have implications in the grander scheme of things.

The match re-emphasised the huge gap which exists between Caucasian and Oriental rugby, particularly in terms of physique. Japan, giving away weight and height - not least to the third tallest player in the tournament, the 6ft 10in Derwyn Jones - were never able to win enough possession to go with their courage and inventiveness. In spite of the hopelessness of their cause, Japan never gave up their search for a try and were rewarded with two second-half scores from Oto.

In the circumstances, it was difficult to judge what difference a new manager, coach and captain have made for Wales, who arrived here after a whitewash in the Five Nations Championship, five consecutive defeats and with only three tries in their previous nine internationals. At least they unearthed a talent in the Bridgend wing, Gareth Thomas, who scored a hat-trick of tries on his international debut.

Alex Evans, their new coach from Australia, was quick to praise the debutant afterwards. "He ran his tries in well. At his size and height, he is the sort of player Wales have been looking for. He has a big future ahead of him," said Evans, who was also encouraged by the performance of the scrum-half, Andy Moore, also making a first appearance for his country. "I thought Moore controlled the game. Some of his kicking was excellent and his distribution was very good." Evans certainly seems to have added some steel to the Welsh side. At practice last week, after what seemed to onlookers a particularly tough exercise, he was heard to shout: "That was a bit bloody sedate, wasn't it?"

Wales were certainly in control yesterday, even though they went off the boil in the second half. They crossed for seven tries and, in a 14- minute purple patch at the end of the first half, scored 27 points. Evans can feel satisfied with the strategy of having Adrian Davies at fly-half and moving Neil Jenkins to the centre. Jenkins looked quite at home in his new role.

The Welsh back-row forwards, Emyr Lewis, Hemi Taylor and Stuart Davies, were prominent throughout and they established an early ascendancy which led to a couple of penalties from Jenkins, who added another truly massive penalty from wide out on the halfway line.

The forward probing done, and nine points on the board, Wales proceeded to get some tries to end the drought that had afflicted them for nearly a year.

From the very first Welsh line-out throw after 25 minutes, Lewis and Taylor drove for the posts where Japan, in frantic defence, knocked a pass back over their own line for Moore to score. Jenkins converted.

Moore then put in a chip to the box which sat up neatly for Ieuan Evans, who scorched in under the posts and Jenkins again added the goal. This was followed by another Jenkins penalty and the first half was turning into something of a rout as Adrian Davies looped with Jenkins and Taylor before throwing out a long pass to Ieuan Evans, who got over. Thomas then scored his first try with a dummy and a cut for the line which made it 36-0 at half-time.

Immediately after the restart, Wales scored again with a second try by Thomas, but the Welsh relaxed their efforts and began to look vulnerable against the constant probing of the Japanese attackers, who seemed determined to cross their opponents' line. After 61 minutes, they got their just reward with a try by Oto.

Wales responded with the hat-trick try by Thomas and one from Taylor, the hard-working flanker. Jenkins converted both. But Japan, gallant to the end, had the final word with a series of determined, scampering attacks which had the Welsh defence reeling, but one suspected that by now they were not taking matters too seriously and Oto gained his second try.

Wales now meet New Zealand in Johannesburg on Wednesday and then play Ireland tomorrow week in a game crucial for both sides. Although New Zealand remain the pool favourites, Evans is adamant that Wales have nothing to fear. He said: "I always felt we can compete against New Zealand - although the Welsh haven't always felt like that - and there is no reason why we can't compete with them up front and in the backs. I am confident we can make a tough game of it. We feel we can beat the All Blacks and we certainly won't be going out in awe of them."

Wales: A Clement (Swansea); I Evans (Llanelli), M Hall (Cardiff, capt), N Jenkins (Pontypridd), G Thomas (Bridgend); A Davies, A Moore; M Griffiths (Cardiff), G Jenkins (Swansea), J Davies (Neath), D Jones (Cardiff), G Llewellyn (Bath), S Davies (Swansea), E Lewis, H Taylor (Cardiff).

Japan: T Matsuda (Toshiba); L Oto (Daito Bunka Univ) A Yoshida, Y Motoki, (Kobe Steel), T Masuho (World Co); S Hirao, M Horikoshi (Kobe Steel); O Ota (NEC), M Kunda (Toshiba, capt), K Takahashi (Toyota), Y Sakuraba (Nippon Steel), B Ferguson (Hino), H Kajihara (Katsuhnama), Sinali Latu, Sione Latu (Sanyo).

Referee: E Sklar (Argentina).