Gatland's men pull their weight but Wales fail in trial of strength

Emphasis on physicality is not enough to overhaul England

By Lawrence King
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:39
George North scored two tries for Wales
George North scored two tries for Wales

Warren Gatland's Wales teams continue to promise much yet deliver only a few crumbs for their passionate followers.

This World Cup warm-up was a decent effort – considering they lost their No 1 fly-half, Stephen Jones, to a calf injury in the warm up – yet they had the pressure and possession in the final quarter to leave England red-faced and worried.

Gatland left Twickenham frustrated, after his men had paid for a dodgy middle period which had England sitting on a winning lead. Only then did the captain, Sam Warburton, a forceful flanker, pick up the pace to leave England hanging on at the end. Another worry for Gatland is a growing injury list. Morgan Stoddart, who was called in after Jones limped out 30 minutes before the start, was carried off with a suspected broken leg in the second half, to join a casualty list that includes two senior backs, James Hook (neck) and Lee Byrne (knee).

At this rate Gavin Henson may well be on the plane to New Zealand later this month, if he shows anything like his best in next week'sre-match with England in Cardiff.

A mix of youth and experience had kept Wales in the match. A second try for the 19-year-old wing George North, in the 76th minute and following a first score after 17 minutes and one by Shane Williams early in the second half, rewarded Wales for their tenacity when they might have followed the example of their predecessors here in 2007. Gatland had promised a far sternereffort than that humbling afternoon, which ended in England posting a 62-5 victory to start the end of Gareth Jenkins' reign as Wales coach.

At one stage in the second half, after Manu Tuilagi had slipped through some poor tackling to score a debut try under the posts, Wales could have fallen away from an England team who used their greater muscle and the kicking nous of Jonny Wilkinson to build a winning lead.

Gatland had told his men to go out and "surprise" England in the physical stakes, in which big men knock the guts out of each other. That goal is still some way off, but the coach has a four-year contract, to continue the work whatever fate befalls his team in New Zealand next month.

Wales' World Cup preparations had gone perfectly until about 2pm, when Jones limped out. Gatland must have grimaced but Jones's replacement, Rhys Priestland, was one of Wales's most accomplished players, helping to set up North's first try and producing a neat and tidy game, the hallmark of Jones long career.

If Wales lost out for muscle in the middle period, their first try was out of England's coaching manual. A series of forward drives, orchestrated by Mike Phillips from scrum-half, eventually left the defence ragged enough to give Priestland space and time to set his backs free. His neat link and pass was followed by Jonathan Davies and Stoddart giving North the space on the right to touch down. With Priestland converting from the touchline, Wales led 7-3.

But Gatland's hopes of a rare success over a major nation had evaporated by the 45th minute, England having played their best rugby to gain tries for James Haskell, off the back of a scrum, and Tuilagi, who burst clear in midfield, prompted by Wilkinson's excellent call and pass.

Wilkinson was key. His two drop-goals maintained England's lead, offsetting Williams's try in the 54th minute, the wing finishing off after Phillips had been held up on the line by Matt Stevens. Williams at times looked frustrated. He learned that he had to go looking for action, because Wales could not deliver a regular supply of possession.

Gatland knows that Wales could well be caught out at the World Cup by the physicality of the champions, South Africa, Fiji and Tonga. He believes that two training camps in Poland have helped build his players' physicality. But Wales remain behind the likes of South Africa and England. The best forecast for Gatland and his men is that they will score plenty of tries but, ultimately, find themselves derailed up front.

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