World Cup Preview: Wales

Group D Opposition: South Africa, Fiji, Samoa, Namibia

Pedigree: A mixed bag as you might expect.  Semi-finalists in 1987 (they won the third place playoff against Australia) and quarter finalists in 1999 and 2003, when they gave England a real scare before finally succumbing to the eventual champions. On the flipside, in 1991, 1995 and 2007 they failed to get out of their group. A habit of wayward, unfocused performances into the hands of Pacific Island nations has gotten them into trouble before…
Players to watch: A decent team is taking shape: George North looks like he could set the tournament alight, while Wales look like the only Six Nations team bringing a dedicated breakdown forward in Sam Warburton. In what could be an inspired move, Gatty has made the brilliant 22-year old his captain. Alongside him, there will be hope that Dragons’ afro’d Toby Felatau can be the dynamic ball carrying No.8 they have long required. Key to the whole operation is James Hook – he is wonderfully talented, but continues to be shunted around the backline without a set position. Can they finally get the bet out of him? 

Good tournament: Wales are in a pig of a group, and if they get out of it that will be considered good enough.

Bad tournament: Fail to get out of the group and Wazza will have issues.

Prospects: Not four weeks ago, things looked desperately grim: Wales were lucky to draw with Fiji in the autumn, were mediocre in the Six Nations and all their best players seemed to be either injured or developing a penchant for late night brawling (something which applied to the coaching staff as well).  We were all set to predict yet another Pacific Island-induced early exit for the Valleysmen. 

But things are looking up.  There still appears to be some sort of injury jinx hanging over the squad (Stoddart, Rees and Henson are out with long term injuries and Gethin Jenkins is likely to travel even though he may not play a part until the latter stages), but several long-term absentees are back in harness.  Lee Byrne is available, Adam Jones, so important to the Welsh scrum, made his comebck successfully, and Jamie Roberts and Lee 0.5p are back too.

Results have been good. Wales were competitive in Twickenham, won the reverse fixture in spite of being dominated in terms of territory and possesion, and toughed it out against a physical Argentina side. If Wales can get James Hook at his best and put him centre stage, they can surprise a few people this autumn.

The one worry is that the teams they have played so far are, shall we say, predictable, in their attacking patterns. Which is most definitely something you could not say about Samoa or Fiji. How the Welsh blitz defence will cope with hard and varied lines and runners on the shoulder is anyone’s guess. The likelihood is they won’t look half as comfortable against the Pacific teams, but can potentially score more as well.

Here’s where the setup of the team will come in – where is Jamie Roberts going to play, and can he free his hands? Can Lee Byrne discover his 2008 form? And will Hook be given charge of the team? It’s quite easy to see a scenario where the management team go with the certainty of Stephen Jones against Samoa after a ropey Hook showing against the Boks – this ia the nightmare scenario as its Hook’s quick mind, hands and feet which unlock the physical Pacific defences.

Verdict: Given Wales’ history, the draw could scarcely have been more unkind, with both Fiji and Samoa potential banana skins.  They effectively have three test level games, and all will be hugely physical, not a traditional Welsh strength. It’s not inconceivable that they could come a cropper – they struggled badly against Fiji this season, and Samoa recently toppled Australia in a remarkable game. Only as little as a fortnight ago we were leaning towards Samoa, but given Wales’ momentum, they should be able to get out of the pool, to reach a quarter final where Australia will surely beat them.

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2 Comments

  1. Agree about Hook. Not playing him at 10 has held Wales' progress back over the past few years and perhaps he should have been 10 for Lions in South Africa. Is it only now that he has moved to France that the Welsh appreciate him more? Hard to believe he has been around for what seems like forever and he is about two weeks older than Sexton.

  2. Hi Anon. I've heard that Hook is a quiet guy and management do not feel he is talkative and authoritative enough to control the game from this position. That said, it really has been a shame to see him moved about so much. He's too great a talnt to waste. I've a feeling this might be a big tournament for him.

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