Wales have reasons to be cheerful
January 25, 2007
So now we know. Wales's game against New Zealand revealed the full list of All Black weaknesses. It consists of the following - may crack up in later stages of World Cup.
There may be others, but none were made obvious by the combined attentions of England, France and Wales over four consecutive weekends. This needs taking into account when weighing how well Wales have emerged from the autumn programme.
It is tough to retain perspective when the final impression has been made by opponents who played with unmatched intensity, immolate opposition at the gainline, consistently create extra men by the speed of their passing and lines of running, field lock forwards who kick 60 metre touchfinders - all of it orchestrated by the incomparable Richie McCaw and his lieutenant, Carter The Unstoppable Points Machine.
The thought occurs that next time the Welsh Rugby Union gets into a dispute with the New Zealanders about when and whether to perform the haka it should concede the point rather than sending them into the match as evidently fired-up as they were on this occasion.
Wales will not have to face anything of remotely comparable power or quality this side of the World Cup. It should, though, concentrate minds that they start the Six Nations against the next best thing - Ireland.
In the other matches the Pacific Islanders and Canada were beaten much as might have been hoped, and while the draw against Australia was disappointing when compared to pre-match expectations, it counted as something of an achievement after a miserable start.
In spite of the final disappointment, there are reasons to be moderately cheerful. If not quite as good as might be hoped - compare and contrast this performance against the All Blacks with the single-point loss incurred by Mike Ruddock's Grand-Slammers-to-be two years ago - Wales are in a considerably better state than might have been feared a few months ago when Ruddock had been forced out, Scott Johnson was in temporary charge and Ireland were inflicting a fearsome beating in Dublin.
Wales should at the very least be competitive this year. If it is possibly too much to dream of another Grand Slam, only the Irish have emerged from the autumn programme in conspicuously better shape - although the usual provisos about vulnerability to English and French physical power continues to apply.
There are some genuine plusses, conspicuously the emergence of James Hook. It may be that Wales has another player offering Gavin Henson's qualities, but without his troublesome hinterland.
Against both Australia and New Zealand his arrival inserted composure, direction and shape into a midfield previously lacking in all three.
Previously short - for all of Craig Sweeney's admirable qualities - of cover for Stephen Jones at outside-half, Gareth Jenkins has found a solution to this quandary only to be presented with another : can he be sure that his chosen captain really is the best number 10 available to him?
One lesson of the New Zealand match should certainly be that Jones and Sonny Parker offer too little in pace and creativity to be played as at outside-half and inside-centre.
If Jones, who deserves well of both coach and country, is to continue at outside-half then he should be paired with another playmaker - either Hook or Henson - at number 12.
Without the second playmaker there is a risk that Wales will sacrifice one of its greatest assets - the strike-power of a threequarter line also featuring the varying skills of Tom Shanklin, Mark Jones and the irrepressible Shane Williams.
Winning them enough ball may be the issue. The back row fielded against New Zealand is as good as Wales have, with Alix Popham supplying welcome drive and aggression as an impact substitute.
Wales and Ireland have in common front rows who may welcome the partial depowering of the scrimmage to come in the New Year. Where they part company in the front five and set pieces is that Wales still lack a really dominant line-out presence and are occasionally vulnerable on their own put-in.
Ireland, perming Paul O'Connell plus either of the second and third best locks in Europe, are the team likeliest to take advantage of such limitations and against Australia in particular showed an All Black-like ability to attack from purloined line-out possession.
Another Grand Slam? No - but a second or third place to take Wales into the World Cup in better shape than any previous tournament with the arguable exception of 1987 seems eminently possible.