Wales 7s rise to the occasion
March 10, 2009
Wales celebrate their unlikely triumph at the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens © Getty Images
Warren Gatland Gavin Henson James Hook Robert Jones Stephen Jones Dwayne Peel Tom Shanklin Jonathan Thomas
Pleasant surprises are now commoner than they once were in Welsh rugby and, what is more important, more numerous than the other type. Even so the triumph of the Wales team in the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai really did come unanticipated and unannounced from left-field.
While fading memory insists that Wales had a fair run in an Australian bicentenary tournament in the late 1980s, the more recent record contained few suggestions that this sort of success was imminent - or even in the middle-distance - with the occasional semi-final the limit of achievement on the IRB circuit. The nearest thing to a hint was beating New Zealand in Wellington, but even that was followed by a quarter-final exit against Kenya.
You might expect that Wales would have prospered in sevens. Its strength in the past has been based on precisely those players - quick of foot, hand and mind - who are suited to the format. It was, though, never taken very seriously. It was a pre- or late-season relaxation, the equivalent of a beer match in cricket.
My father still recalls, on his only visit to the Middlesex Sevens, being told by the accompanying group of friends 'You'll enjoy this - Swansea are one of the guest teams'. Familiar with Welsh clubs in general and, as a supporter of many years standing, the All Whites in particular he knew that he would not. Their departure was predictably early and ignominious.
The great exception of course was London Welsh in the 1970s, so dominant in the Middlesex Sevens that they were invariably greeted with good-natured booing. One reason was that they had such good players that they would have succeeded under just about any conceivable set of rules. The other was that they were enough of a London club to prize the Middlesex fiesta and take it seriously.
They also understood that there is real value in sevens, not merely as a form of relaxation but a sharpener of skills and reflexes that will aid a player in the 15-a-side game. As Robert Jones told me the best part of a decade ago when we were working on Raising the Dragon, "There is nothing better for developing instinctive football skills…there is no hiding place, you have to live off your skills and wits. You have to learn how to pass, how to beat a man or outwit a defence, and you have the space in which to do it. You also learn how to tackle."
That still holds good today. If one outcome of the remarkable performance in Dubai is that Wales, its regions, clubs and schools start to take sevens more seriously, the entire game will benefit. So, while on this thought, would Welsh rugby benefit if more schools played rugby league, producing forwards who are comfortable with the ball in their hands and have better tackling technique?
The Dubai triumph may of course be a one-off. This seems to be a year in which the prizes go around on the sevens circuit following last year's New Zealand monopoly. The quarter-finals seem to have been played to a sound-track of 'the world turned upside down'. You might have guessed that one of Wales, Argentina, Kenya and Samoa would upset more-fancied opposition. That they all did pretty much defied belief.
We may have seen a permanent shift in power - or Wales may never again win a major sevens crown. We don't know. What does matter is that at the moment when it counted most, the Welsh seven rose to the occasion. Given that they only became regular members of the IRB Sevens tour four years ago, it really is some achievement.
Wales will of course be hoping that uprisings of the lower orders do not continue in Rome this weekend. Warren Gatland's team selection, even allowing that Italy do not appear to have recovered from that calamitous opening 40 minutes at Twickenham, looks like a highly calculated risk.
It is a reshuffling of established squad members rather than the musical chair experiment being carried out by the French. And there is a fair amount to welcome. Each of Gavin Henson, James Hook and Dwayne Peel merits a start, although current indications are that Peel may not be fit. That none of Tom Shanklin, Stephen Jones and Mike Phillips remotely deserves to be dropped indicates one of Wales's strengths at the moment, that Warren Gatland really does have to make choices when he selects a team. The return of Jonathan Thomas to the back row is hugely welcome and Alun Wyn Jones was clearly going to captain Wales some day, the only question being when. If anyone is offering odds he might be worth an early punt as captain of the 2015 Lions in Australia.
The risk, though, is in putting out a front five consisting largely of reserves. If little else has gone right for Italy, their set pieces have continued to function and they have several forwards who would be serious runners for Lions places if they were British or Irish. Welsh fans - and neutrals who'd like to see the championship settled in a final-day, last-match showdown - will hope that Gatland has calculated right. He usually has. And if he hasn't, his credit rating is so astronomical that the worst-case outcome would be loud grumbling rather than the demands for blood which have followed surprises of the unpleasant kind in the recent past.
Huw Richards is a respected rugby journalist and author and a regular contributor to Scrum.com