Sunday, August 19, 2007

Wales by a slither beat Argentines

From The Sunday Times
August 19, 2007

Underfire coach sees dignity restored
Gareth Jenkins’ side thrived by going back to basics, a lesson that must be remembered in France next monthMark Palmer
THE DEBATE has lingered in the Welsh game for longer than you would expect from a country that knows and cares about its rugby. In a year of gut-wrenching fixtures round these parts, performance versus result, the philosophical struggle to determine the relative importance of each, has cause the most angst.

The roar that rattled round the half-filled Cardiff stands as the Wales pack gritted their teeth, hunched their shoulders and crossed their fingers to see off what seemed an inexorable late Argentine thrust finally put a full stop to the discussion.

After experimentation brought extermination at Twickenham, Wales have their dignity back, and Wales have their hope back. Only a win, any win, could have had such a powerful double effect. An occasionally panicky second-half display compared unfavourably with the impressive gloss of the first, but to hell with the aesthetics, the immediate future suddenly looks much better. After beating a side ranked three places above them, and whose recent scalps made the prospective gap even bigger, Wales can look upon the World Cup as an opportunity, rather than a penance. They stumbled, sure, but still cleared some significant hurdles here, not least warming a sceptical public that had arrived quietly braced for more trouble.

Jenkins is a man under pressure and a man under scrutiny as the public seek evidence that there is a master plan after all. Mercifully, his selections and his game plan yesterday seemed geared to no more far-reaching an aspiration than winning this match and winning it well.

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Not coincidentally, both objectives were achieved, although not without some anxious moments along the way. Coach and team went back to basics. The right players played the right positions. Elementary stuff, but something the Welsh set-up has had repeated difficulties with of late. Kevin Morgan, the hardest-running, surest-kicking full-back in the country, was given his head, and kept it admirably in the face of the exacting aerial examinations posed by Felipe Contepomi and Federico Todeschini. Gareth Thomas, a stronger tackler than James Hook or Stephen Jones, the other potential World Cup 12s, was keen to splinter the battering rams that Argentina tried to float up the midfield channels. Although short of a yard or three of pace, he brings clout to an area where Wales have severely lacked it since those heady days of early 2005. And because he offered immediate atonement at the other end, keeping pace well with the skiddy Hook, we won’t dwell on that eyewatering fourth-minute interception.

Suffice to say that it again threw neon light on the continued folly of Gavin Henson’s exile. Whatever the undulations of his private life, one thing he has never been in a Wales jersey is rash, or even just unreliable.

There was, mystifyingly, still no starting place in the front row for Gethin Jenkins and Chris Horsman against arguably the best scrummaging unit in world rugby, but the Joneses, Duncan and Adam, kept up well with the tricks and twists that make Rodrigo Roncero and Martin Scelzo such dastardly customers. Wales, on the whole, struck parity in the scrum, a resounding achievement in light of how pitifully they struggled against England and even against as apparently unthreatening a front five as Scotland’s in the spring.

You would hesitate to extend the compliment to their lineout. The first, unremarkably reached and slapped down by Jonathan Thomas, drew a round of ironic cheers from the crowd. This lack of confidence was shown to be based on sadly sound reasoning. The game progressed amid a sorry bag of tremulous throws from Matthew Rees, haphazardly coordinated leaps from the Welsh jumpers and general anarchy. Still, the breakdown was good enough, and two out of three was a better haul than most expected to be drawn from this brilliant Argentina pack. Yesterday was all about the bottom line, not the detail, and Wales, tentatively, are back in the money again.

- BAYONNE’S Mikaera Tewhata has been banned by the French Rugby Federation for punching Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll in a World Cup warm-up game. O’Driscoll will miss their first World Cup match after suffering a fractured sinus. The FFR said the Kiwi lock was banned until it received the match referee’s report and the results of its own investigation. Before the FFR ban, Bayonne had already suspended Tewhata for two matches. The New Zealander said he was deeply sorry for his actions, and wanted to apologise to O’Driscoll in person.

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