Glass Ceiling

After a mighty impressive victory over Inglaterra, Ireland stand close to a historic achievement – a Grand Slam, just a third ever. What struck us after the game was how .. straightforward .. the tournament has been for Ireland. As against Italy and France, a strong third quarter put control of the game firmly in Ireland’s hands (and for the third time, they ended up on the back foot in the final quarter but then each time the opposition were chasing the game). England were whacked and bagged by the hour and the game was done – and it was closed out fairly efficiently.  Ireland were in England’s half killing the clock for much of the final few minutes, and though England almost ran in a try in the final play it wouldn’t have mattered.

England! Whacked and bagged! England have been tournament favourites since like whenever and were the most impressive team through the first two rounds.  Ireland simply put them away without a fuss. Once we went two scores up, that was it, game over.

Now, for the traditional part where we look at where our forecast of the game went wrong. While some of what we said did in fact come to pass (it would be chess on grass and Deep Blue would outsmart England), our overriding concern going into the match was that we wouldn’t have the scoring power to win if England landed a couple of sucker-punches. We were confident they’d beat France’s haul of 11 points and that Ireland would need to respond in kind. Well, they didn’t because Ireland stopped them at source.

A monumental effort at defensive breakdowns won the match. Rory Best led the assault, letting every rose-clad yeoman know that no ruck would be free from either he, Toner, or some Irish forward bent over double trying to pilfer the ball. If we didn’t win it, we slowed it to a crawl and the pressure resulted in England simply allowing themselves to make errors, which Ireland converted into territory and ultimately points. [Incidentally, one penalty against Peter O’Mahony late in the match was beyond ridiculous. As soon as I heard the referee’s whistle I jumped to the air so sure was I that O’Mahony had won the penalty. Then I looked again and Joubert’s arm was pointing the wrong way!]

Another improvement from the France game was that Ireland were more proactive with the bench. Mike Ross [superb again, it must be said] and Jack McGrath were whipped off before the hour, and Iain Henderson was on for 15 minutes. Two changes had to be made far earlier than was idea, but Tommy O’Donnell was superb. And Zeebs was brilliant too – we sort of said he should be dropped, but he was everywhere.

It was all pretty eerie – even when Ireland have been successful, they haven’t made it easy for the fans. The 2009 team salved a description of us all as “long-suffering” after years of near-misses but even then, the average fan gained 10 years through the tournament. The England and France games went down to the wire, Scotland had us in all sorts of trouble (remember Bob’s intervention on a bouncing ball to deny Chris Paterson a walk-in try?) and as for the Wales game… Paddy Wallace won’t be the only one who won’t forget that sinking feeling. Only Italy were dispatched with ease.

Even last year, we lost to England and rode our luck a bit against France. This time, we’ve beaten both without looking like we needed to go up into fifth gear, although the finale of the France match was pretty stressful. Italy were swatted aside and now there are only two games left. And then… it’s only the World Cup. We’re into new territory here.

The first goal – a Grand Slam – has two more peaks to scale. One, Wales, is Mount Ventoux and one, Scotland, is Mount Merrion. Dealing with Scotland will be simple – luminaries like Rog and Drico have come up with the idea that since Scotland will be facing a wooden spoon when we go to Embra, it becomes something of a tough game, since its a ‘cup final’. I’m sorry, but I’m just not buying it – they just lost at home to Italy, crumbling like that lovely apricot Wensleydale we got on the Lisburn Road in our last trip home. They are about to get a huge can of whoopass opened on them in Twickers, so forgive us for thinking they are not going to suddenly become a threat to Ireland in three weeks time. All we’ll hear about for the next two weeks will be whether we need to put Jonny Sexton in some bubble wrap and keep him under the stairs, and sure, he’a absolutely essential to beating Wales, but Ireland could play Ian Humphreys and still waltz pass Scotland.  Even if Scotland do show up you can almost guarantee they’ll find a way to lose the game.

But Wales – now that’s a different story. The Greatest Team in World Rugby have had their customary slow start and they are rather similar to us – they will belt the ball super-high in the air, tackle until the cows come home, and dare teams to beat them. The team is festooned with leaders – Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Dan Biggar, Roberts and Davies, Halfpenny. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve a back three who won’t crumble in the face of forty-plus snow-covered garryowens.  Halfpenny is a match for anyone under the high ball, and Liam Williams has played most of his footie in the 15 jumper.  And the rapidly-emerging Rhys Webb, who offers a little guile and creativity to supplement the Warrenball.

Ireland will be ever-so-slight favourites and Gatty would LOVE IT if he got one over on us, and Joe Schmidt. You can only imagine his face. It’s always tempting to dismiss Wales as one-dimensional bully-boys, and they have their off-days but they remain a good team.  Win, and they’re in the shake-up for the championship, which could conceivably be a three-way tie on match points.

Most beautiful of all this is our draw in the World Cup – we’ve got a shambolic French team (please, FFR, do the decent thing and keep PSA until the World Cup) and Italy, plus some bunnies. It’s hard to see at this stage, with our coach, how we won’t plot a way to win that group. The likely path after that is Argentina followed by the winner of the Pool of Death. Our base assumption has always been that England at home will be a tough nut for the Wobblies and the Greatest Team in World Rugby to crack – Cheika’s probably the most likely to do so, but that’s a debate for September. The way Ireland are playing, Argentina then England looks like a feasible couple of matches – avoiding the Southern Hemisphere big three right through past the semi-finals is pretty fortunate (if its ever even happened).

Despite the Irish glass ceiling at the quarter-finals, it’s hard to escape the feeling the stars are lining up, and it’s pretty frightening really – a lot seems to be coming together and our natural inclination is to ask how it can all go wrong. The first way is underestimating the Greatest Team in World Rugby – we certainly won’t be doing that.

Pass the Parcel

Ireland look set to keep changes to a minimum today, with the returning Rory Best being brought into the front row and Gordon D’arcy is likely to squeeze in ahead of the increasingly impressive Stuart Olding at centre.

It’s the sort of selection we’ve become used to in Ireland where the pecking order of players remains relatively static. Sean Cronin is brilliant in the loose and Richardt Strauss is showing signs of returning to his best form, but Rory Best is one of the team’s foundations, so if he’s fit, he plays. Just throw the ball in straight, Rory!

It’s a similar story in Wales, where Gatland has stuck with what is recognisable as his best team. All the usuals are there and in spite of Liam Williams’ good form, it would take a crowbar to get Alex Cuthbert, George North or Leigh Halfpenny out of the team. Jamie Roberts and JJV Davies are longstanding as his preferred centre partnership and we all know how good they can be. In the backrow it’s the same. Everyone loves hipster’s choice Justin Tipuric for his electric line-breaks and incredible hands, but Sam Warburton is Gatland’s captain and a cornerstone of the team. Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau is enshrined as Gatland’s backrow of choice in Welsh rugby law.

Wales and Ireland have relatively small playing pools, so there can be a gulf between the best fifteen or twenty players, and the next best 10 or so. It means coaches tend to be more loyal to their players; sometimes to a fault in the case of Declan Kidney’s post-2009 selections (see: O’Leary, Tomas). Mike Phillips has done little or nothing in club rugby for years, but Gatland stuck with him throughout that period – until this season when Rhys Webb is finally ready to play test rugby.

Over in England and France, the pecking order in key positions in the team is altogether more fluid, and they’re not always the better for it. England are currently amid a mini-crisis. Has the gloss and sense of feelgood ever come off a team as quickly? From this perspective, their media appeared overconfident going into this series and the group of players available to them looked far from being world-beaters. Their death-by-a-thousand-cuts loss to New Zealand and tactically inflexible defeat to South Africa have brought them down to earth. ‘How long have we tied Lancaster down until again?’ Er, 2020.

Still, the thing for Lancaster is he can always change the team. They have such a depth of moderately talented players that if someone has a bad game or two, there’s always someone in decent enough form to put in his place. Danny Care was among England’s best players in the Six Nations and the thought of dropping him then seemed a world away. But memories are short and Care hasn’t been at his best so far this series. So he’s out! ‘Care’s out of form’, goes the line, ‘so we should play Youngs, Wigglesworth, one of the Dicksons, Shaun Perry, Andy Gomarsall or whoever, instead of him’. None of those players are as good as Danny Care – in fact only Ben Youngs gets even close – but never mind, let’s change it up anyway!

It leads to a pass-the-parcel approach to selection that isn’t necessarily all that beneficial. Lots of scrum-halves have had a stint in the England team and each has followed the same pattern: looks Tha Biz for a while, before not looking as good for a bit, finding themselves dumped out of the team, before the same pattern recurs for someone else and the original fellow finds himself recalled, and the cycle continues. If Conor Murray had two poor games on the trot – unlikely and all as that seems – the chances of him being thrown out of the team for Reddan, Marmion, Boss or Peter Stringer would be remote.

If things are bad at scrum half for England, they are worse again at centre, where this infurating approach has pretty much been in place since Will Greenwood retired. Riki Flutey, Jamie Noon, Anthony Allen, Ollie Smith, Shontayne Hape, Matt Banahan, and so on and so on the list of modest footballers who had a go at centre for a few games before the next chap came along is a long one.

In France the approach to selection is even worse, and has at times seemed to be something approaching a lottery. France have had a run of madcap selectors dating back to Bernard Laporte; scrum halves playing 10, seemingly outstanding players overlooked for tradesmen, world-class centres on the wing; they’ve had it all.

That said, there’s a time to make brave selectorial decisions, and if England really do have world cup winning aspirations, there are two things they absolutely must do. The first is pick Steffon Armitage, the world-class openside who has dominated the Heineken Cup with Toulon in recent seasons, and the other is to get Owen Farrell out of the team – for his own sake as well as that of the team – playing a player into form, when it doesn’t work, destroys the player (see: O’Leary, Tomas).

For some reason, the coach appears tied to the vastly overrated Farrell, but the case for George Ford as a long-term solution at 10 is compelling enough to give him a run in the team. Ford has a way to go before becoming a complete player, but he is capable of far more in attack already than Farrell ever will be. The team for Samoa has got this half-right at best. Ford starts at 10, but Farrell remains in the team at 12. The word was it was goal-kicking related, but they aren’t that different this season – Ford is 25/33 (76%) this season, while Farrell is 9/11 (82%), essentially there is one missed kick between them. So why is he there? It has the look of selection by committee.

Get Quick Ball. Use Quick Ball. Repeat.

Warren Gatland has named his team for the second test, and the big decision has been made at scrum-half, where Mike Phillips, who looked to be operating below 100% in the first test, carries the can.  Rather than replacing like for like and replacing him with Ireland’s Conor Murray, who even looks a bit like him, he’s gone with Ben Youngs, who’s a totally different player, a nippy nine who’s all about high tempo and quick tap penalties.

Elsewhere, Mako Vunipola starts.  We thought he’d be held back as reserve again, but Gatland will be hoping that having Adam Jones on the other side of him will be enough to drag the scrum kicking and screaming through 80 minutes.  Before the tour started, the Lions could have reasonable hopes of using the set piece as a weapon – now it’s fingers-crossed time.  At least Vunipola offers a strong carrying threat in what is a pack short of gainline breakers.

To nobody’s surprise, Dan Lydiate starts at 6.  We know what he’s there to do, so let’s hope he does it.  O’Brien mercifully gets called up to the bench, where he finds himself beside Tom Croft, who’s covering the second row.  If last week’s bench was light on impact, this time Gatland has swung the other way and both could be explosive against tiring legs in the last 20 minutes.  The price to pay is that Alun-Wyn Jones is now a protected species.  Were he to get injured, a second row of Parling and Croft would leave the Lions worryingly short of power.  An already creaking scrum could be decimated (ref: last 20 in Brisbane)

Back to the scrum-half business, which has serious consequences for what we can expect from the Lions.  Warrenball is predicated on a monstrous nine who can commit tacklers and bring in huge runners around the fringes.  Bosh! Smash! Kapow! This team looks like a serious deviation from Warrenball.  With a backrow containing three ruck-smashers in Lydiate, Warburton and Heaslip, the aim must surely be to win oodles of silver-platter ball for Ben Youngs.  Youngs struggles on the back foot, where his game can become a tangle of arm waving and poor decisions, but with decent service, there are few quicker at getting the ball away to his fly-half.  It might just suit Jonny Sexton, who can unleash the three-quarter-line, which is loaded with gifted strike runners.  It does look like the plan is to go around Australia rather than bash through them.  If they can get the ball into North and Bowe’s hands in good positions, how can they lose?

The trouble with the plan is that in order to generate quick ball, you need to punch your way over the gainline.  With no O’Brien, Faletau, Phillips or Tuilagi starting, who is going to make the hard yards?  Jamie Heaslip and Mako Vunipola will have to put in some serious shifts.  The other minor issue is that as far as we can make out, Ben Youngs and Sexton have yet to play together on the tour, and therefore ever.  For what looks a fairly natural partnership, it’s a bit nuts that their first appearance alongside one another is in the pivotal second test.

Gatland has shown some ruthlessness in dropping tryscorer Cuthbert in favour of Bowe, who is a player he appears to value very highly.  It’s a marginal call, and Bowe came out the right side of it.  With Toby Faletau unlucky not to feature in a test squad yet, despite playing some great rugby, nobody can accuse Gatland of having a Welsh bias.  He certainly appears to have his favourites, and one ould certainly make a case that the test team was picked in advance of the plane touching down in Hong Kong, but his favourites aren’t necessarily Welsh.

There were a few surprises in the Aussie team too, not least that they are sticking with James O’Connor at 10, in spite of Kurtley Beale starting.  We thought they’d move them around a bit, with O’Connor on the wing and Beale at 10.  The first test was marked by each team having one half-back in princely form and one playing like a drain.  At least the Lions have sought to address their issue.

And where the bloody hell is the Honey Badger?  We are outraged.

Less than Fourteen, More than Two

This post is from our regular column in the Irish Post, the highest-selling newspaper for the Irish in Britain (which these days includes businessmen, lawyers and doctors, as well as recalitrant MPs under the illusion they matter). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain.

When it’s a Lions year, you’ll always have the people who see every game as a Lions audition – doesn’t matter who wins, they say, it’s who put their hand up. Everything is seen through the prism of Gatty’s beady eyes – it’s like that scene in Moneyball, where Brad Pitt has a massive magnetic board with players names on it – you can envisage Lions Man moving the magnetic strip with ‘Stuart Hogg’ on it from the ‘Possibles’ column into ‘Probables’ – James O’Connor couldn’t cope with his pace, he’ll murmur.

Lions Man isn’t prone to rational thinking either – it’s only the last performance that matters, forget everything that went before. Jamie Heaslip’s Lions experience is irrelevant, sure he couldn’t prevent Ireland losing in Murrayfield, he’ll say, as he throws Heaslip’s magnetic strip on to the floor, where it languishes with ‘Ronan O’Gara’ and ‘Lesley Vainikolo’.

So how will Lions Man be feeling about the Irish prospects right now? Typically, the Irish slay each other with an orgy of inter-provincial bickering, but put up an impregnable, united front against the Brits (of all hues) when it comes to Lions selections. You’ll have Blackrock College’s finest simultaneously derisively referring to Conor Murray as the poor man’s Isaac Boss when referencing his selection for Ireland, while extolling his similarities to Fourie du Preez when he’s up against Ben Youngs for a seat in Qantas business class.

The last Lions tour was an odd experience for us Irish, for when Geech picked every able-limbed Irishman (and a few others as well) to tour the highveldt, we had nothing to moan about. All we could do was sagely agree with leaving Tom Croft at home while laughing at the depth of Stephen Jones’ indignation that one of his favoured few was staying at home (initially anyway).

But this time it’s going to be different – Ireland are heading to a wooden spoon playoff in the Six Nations, the provinces are struggling to maintain the high standards they have set for themselves in Europe this season, and likely tourists are getting crocked at very inconvenient times. We should steel ourselves for righteous anger – it will be nothing like the 14 tourists of 2009, in fact a number as low as three is a possibility.

As there are only a handful of relevant games left for Irish players to make an impression (two more rounds of the Six Nations, plus the HEC knock-out stages), who is set fair for to star in montages featuring a slim Jeremy Guscott dropping goals, and who can safely book that trip to Vegas?

On the Plane:

Sean O’Brien: Ireland’s best player in their first three games, O’Brien has come back from injury as good as he ever was – he’s Ireland’s best carrier, their most prolific tackler and their only reliable weapon. The farm will be on its own for June.

Johnny Sexton: unless Sexton doesn’t recover from injury, he has enough credit banked. Owen Farrell is his only serious rival for the Test shirt.

Brian O’Driscoll: the only question around the former Lions captain is whether he will be current Lions captain. Once he came back looking so lean and driven, his slot was assured.

One Last Push:

DJ Church: Cian Healy’s suspension could not have been more badly timed – he has been the standout loose-head this season, but Joe Marler, Gethin Jenkins and Ryan Grant are having useful series, and Paul James and Maku Vunipola might come into the reckoning – three are likely to go, but it’s a scrap Healy wasn’t expecting.

Rory Best: the lineout has mis-fired disastrously. Best’s work at the breakdown is feverish – he’s Ireland’s best groundhog – and his scrummaging could be useful against an average Wallaby front row, but he’s only on the plane by default right now – step up required

Depends on Gatty’s Mood:

Jamie Heaslip: tends towards less visibility in a green shirt than a blue one due to the differing requirements of his role. Has a lot on his plate at the moment with captaincy, and hasn’t been concentrating on himself. Might pay when it comes to Lions selection.

Donnacha Ryan: has grown into one of Ireland’s leaders despite being first choice for less than a year. Needs more visibility and physicality, and a prominent performance in the Stoop in April will help, but Gatty has a plethora of options here – if he likes Ryan, he’s in; if he likes the others, he’s out.

Mike Ross: Ireland’s scrum feels solid right now, and that’s down to Ross. Not as destructive as some, but he’s a technician and the Wallaby props aren’t. Again, this one will come down to Gatty’s personal preference.

Conor Murray: Murray is an excellent young player, and is improving all the time. His box-kicking is still average, but his threat around the flanks give his fly-half time to play. Both English scrummies are likely tourists, and Murray might be playing off against Mike Phillips for a ticket.

Struggling For Air:

Rob Kearney: we never thought we’d say this, but Kearney is in Lions contention on reputation only. He’s been rather fallible on his return, and on form is behind Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg, Alex Goode, and even full back-cum-wing Mike Brown. Kearney needs to turn it around fast.

Tommy Bowe: Bowe looked the complete wing before he crocked himself, but he might not play a high-profile game before the tour, having already ruled himself out of Ulster’s HEC quarter final. If he does go, it’s on experience only.

Potential Bolters:

Iain Henderson: NWJMB is one injury away from starting for Ireland. He’s exciting, versatile and has bags of potential. Gatty isn’t shy about throwing youngsters in – if Hendy gets himself noticed, don’t rule it out.

Craig Gilroy: Gilroy is in the dubious position of being written into the Lions squad by none other than Stephen Jones. Jones might be an idiot, but he’s an influential one, so if Gilroy has another stellar performance, he’s a possible.

See You in Vegas:

Stephen Ferris: on his day, Fez is unplayable – an absolute monster with no natural peers in this Hemisphere. Problem is, that destructiveness works both ways. With no return date yet, another Lions tour is unlikely.

Paul O’Connell: captain last time around, O’Connell won’t be touring if he isn’t playing. And he isn’t playing. Second row is a crowded space, and there is no need for Gatty to return to an increasingly injury-prone player, no matter how good he was at his peak.

Lions – The Backs

On Tuesday, we looked at the forwards putting themselves forward for Lions selection.  Today we see which backs should start learning the words to Power of Four, the fondly remembered Lions anthem.

Scrum Half

Already Packed his Spider-Bite Cream: Mike Phillips.  At this juncture, no player is more inked in to the Lions test jersey than the big Welsh number nine.  Not the most technically gifted, but a decent passer, his main strength is his running game and ability to link with his forwards.  Plus, he’s already impressed on a Lions tour.

Work to do: Ben Youngs would be the obvious and desired deputy to Phillips – someone who offers something completely different, and a potential impact replacement late in matches, upping the pace and running tap penalties.  He appears to have recovered his game after a difficult period.  Danny Care mixes the good with the bad, but has had a fine season with Harlequins.  You suspect Gatland would like Conor Murray in the panel as an insurance plan against Phillips, but he needs to show his best form. He needs to show greater speed off the base, but has a good pass once it gets moving.

Any bolters?  Ospreys’ scrum half Rhys Webb is a smashing player, and looks the most capable of making a late burst.

Fly Half

Already Reading His Lonely Planet Guide: Johnny Sexton.  With his goal-kicking yips behind him for Ireland, Johnny Sexton was one of the few successes of the Irish summer tour.  Still not quite as regal in green as in blue, but we suspect Gatland is the sort of coach who’ll cajole the best out of him.  Should be the test starter.

Work to do: We’re still not convinced by Rhys Priestland by a long way.  Gatland seems to be a fan, though, even if he’s taken him off place-kicking duty for Wales.  If Leigh Halfpenny cannot get into the side at full-back ahead of Rob Kearney, it will compromise his test credentials. Toby Flood and Owen Farrell offer slightly more stable talents than the hot-and-cold Welshman, and both will be on hand to provide solid back-up to Sexton should Gatland choose dependable place-kicking over more mercurial abilities.

Any bolters?  A couple.  A certain D. Cipriani will be back on English shores this season with Sale.  Gatland was his one-time mentor back in the day at Wasps.  It remains unlikely that the one-time next big thing will have the discipline and defensive willingness to push for a place on the tour, but how marvellous it would be if he could.  The incumbent next-big-thing, George Ford is another who could make a late dash, but needs to depose Toby Flood at Leicester first.

Centres

Surfboard at the ready: The only centre who looks anything close to nailed-on is Wales’ Big Bopper Jamie Roberts.  We had him in our ‘work to do’ section last year, but he has done plenty of that in the last twelve months.  Hard runner, good hands, when he’s on song he’s close to unplayable; he’ll be a key man for the Lions and nigh on irreplaceable.

Work to do: Can Brian O’Driscoll see out his career with a victorious Lions tour?  He would love nothing more.  The old ledge-bag looked sprightly for Leinster but played a touch fast and loose in New Zealand.  If his body holds together, he’ll surely do enough to make the plane.  Oooooooooooohhh Manu Tuilagi and JJV Davies offer more – how shall we put this? – straight-line tendencies, but both would offer a serious threat to the Aussie gainline.

Any Bolters? Quality inside centres to offer competition to Roberts are thin on the ground, and it’s possible his understudy for Wales, Ashley Beck, will do likewise for the Lions.  Performance in the Pro12 final underlined his quality.

Wings

Wine-tasting guide packed: George North.  There’s no shortage of quality on the wings, with all four countries putting up quality players for examination, but the big, bruising Welshman is top of the bunch.  No bosh-merchant, his skill, distribution and movement belie his monstrous physique.

Work to do: A large field.  From Ireland there’s Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe.  Earls’ ability to play centre could work to his advantage, and he has a Lions tour under his belt.  Bowe excelled in 2009, and is Ireland’s best attacker.  Wales’ other wing Alex Cuthbert (another monster) has timed his rise from obscurity to test class wing impeccably.  Chris Ashton’s star has waned a little, but he’ll be looking to reassert himself at Saracens.  And flying Dutchman (via Scotland) Tim Visser is in with a shout.  He has only one Six Nations to show he can handle international rugby, but he only has the hopes of a nation riding on it, so no pressure, laddie.

Bolters: This is the most bolter-friendly position on the paddock; youngsters can quickly emerge and put themselves in the frame in a short space of time – it’s also a position where confidence and form have the biggest role to play, so Gatland might look past reputation and take a punt on those who are banging in tries.  Christian Wade, Craig Gilroy and Charlie Sharples are just three of many to keep an eye on.

Full Back

Planning a visit to Ayers Rock: Another area of real depth for the Lions, with all four nations putting up a genuine contender.  But Rob Kearney, after his annus mirabilis, is at the top of the tree.  Outstanding performances on last Lions tour won’t be forgotten either.

Work to do: It’ll be at most two from three terrific international players.  Leigh Halfpenny has a mule of a boot and while he isn’t the tallest, is a beautiful runner and dependable catcher.  England’s Ben Foden is a shade off his 2010-11 form, but he is a handsome footballer in every sense of the word.  Already making a bolt is Scotland’s Stuart Hogg, having been eventually let loose for Scotland this Six Nations.  Greased lightning over the turf, his pace would be a real asset.

Any bolters: Felix Jones was mentioned in our comments section this time last year, but injury has been cruel to him.  Gloucester’s lightning-fast Johnny May is an exciting talent, but can he break into the England team to make an impression?

Just Eleven Months To Go

A year out from the tour, the augurs are good.  Wales ran Australia very close in the recent series, and were painfully unlucky to come out on the losing side in the latter two matches.  Surely augmenting that side with a handful of daring Irish, granite-hewn Englishmen, and a giant peroxide-blonde Scot will tilt the balance?  Warren Gatland has already been on one successful, albeit losing, tour and his task will be to deliver a harmonious, happy, competitive squad, similar to 2009.  Therer’s usually little enough you can do on the tactical innovation side in such a short timeframe, so don’t expect too much variation on the Welsh run-hard-run-straight gameplan, with Mike Phillips directing a brutish pack of forwards and Sexton looking to bring the likes of George North and Tim Visser into play as much as possible.  With quality scrummagers, no short of backrow options and plenty of good attacking threats in the backline, this is the Lions’ best chance of a series win since… ooooooh… 1997.  Memo to all: don’t get injured.

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.