Wales under pressure to perform on big stage
August 21, 2007
"Wales will start as second favourites against Australia, the evidence of the summer tests down under is that any gap is hardly unbridgeable, particularly with the game being played at the Millennium Stadium." Huw Richards reports
It may have been at home to a team who initially barely recognised each other after not playing together since last autumn and concluded with their coach spitting blood about the refereeing, but Wales's victory over Argentina mattered.
Rusty or not, Argentina are serious opposition - that number five world ranking did not arrive by accident. It eases the mounting, and frankly overblown, pressure on Gareth Jenkins and his squad, allowing them to prepare with fewer distractions for the real job at hand.
It also means they can look forward with greater optimism, at least in terms of getting out of the pool stages, a challenge beyond their predecessors of 1991 and 1995. Canada and Fiji aren't to be taken lightly, but are unlikely to be as threatening as the Pumas.
And while Wales will start as second favourites against Australia, the evidence of the summer tests down under is that any gap is hardly unbridgeable, particularly with the game being played at the Millennium Stadium.
Once that minimum requirement of a place in the last eight is fulfilled, a further step to match the achievement of 1987 is not entirely out of the question. Again, Wales are likely to start as underdogs. Combatting the power of South Africa, or possibly that of England, might be too much. But neither is remotely unbeatable.
Compare and contrast Ireland's fate, having to take on France and Argentina with the likeliest prize a quarter-final against the All Blacks. Wales certainly cannot complain about the draw.
Wales also go in better shape than in 2003. Then they had suffered a Six Nations whitewash and the most memorable warm-up match saw their best team demolished by England's reserves, rather than vice-versa.
To say that the abuse heaped on Jenkins is evidence that Wales and its media have become as unhinged about their rugby coaches as their English counterparts are about their soccer managers is not to exempt him from criticism.
He has still to convince that he can make the transition from highly-regarded club coach to dealing with the greater challenges of the international game.
He can plead ill-luck. Ryan Jones was one of the players Wales can least afford to lose, with nobody else having shown his capacity for getting across the gain-line. Nor can they readily do without Gavin Henson's versatility and long-range kicking from place and hand, although it is a matter of debate whether this counts as ill-fortune or self-inflicted damage for Jenkins.
The serious worry, though, remains the front five. If the immense blunt weaponry wielded by South Africa or England is to be combated in the quarter-finals, Wales's tight five will have to show as-yet unproven powers.
There were signs of hope in the scrum against Argentina and a truly historic moment at 2.53 pm when Wales won quick,clean ball from the top of the line-out in an attacking position from their own put-in. The set-pieces, though, remain a serious worry.
There is nothing terribly new about this. The line-out was a shambles in the Graham Henry era, and little more than adequate even when Mike Ruddock was in charge, but it is hard to see quite why this weakness should remain so intractable, particularly with Alun-Wyn Jones promising to be the best Welsh lock since Bob Norster.
Struggles in the tight mean that the Welsh back row often finds itself fighting defensive battles rather than showing the attacking creativity evident a couple of years ago.
Hence, in part, the sad decline of Michael Owen. Still, Martyn Williams can be counted upon to be in the right place to support any attack and the unsinkable Colin Charvis should supply a physical edge.
Given half-decent possession, in particular rapid ball from the breakdown, Wales's backs should worry most opponents. Dwayne Peel and James Hook are as gifted a half-back pairing as any team will be fielding in France, Mike Phillips a reserve scrum-half to inspire universal envy.
There is serious quality in the back three where Shane Williams' sidestepping elusiveness gives Wales particular power to disturb opponents accustomed to larger, more predictable adversaries.
If the centres are less convincing, the issue is not one of quality but sameness. Tom Shanklin is a class act. Gareth Thomas is a proven leader and Wales's all-time leading try-scorer. But both are bustlers rather than steppers or openers of subtle angles.
For all Thomas's qualities he lacks the 'second playmaker' abilities needed at number 12, making attacks powerful but predictable.
There must be serious concern about the lack of depth exposed in the beating by England at Twickenham, making Wales highly vulnerable to the injuries certain to occur as the tournament progresses.
The best guess is that Wales will reach the last eight with less difficulty than in 2003, when they needed a fair degree of luck against both Tonga and Italy, but will then make a third consecutive quarter-final exit, probably trailing rather fewer clouds of glory than they earned four years ago with their performances against New Zealand and England.