Wales tackle minnows with one eye on test ahead
Second-string seek big win today against Uruguay Key players rested ahead of titanic clash with England
Had you closed your eyes on Friday night in central Cardiff, you might have imagined that you had been transported to central Suva. From every bar and hostelry, chants of “Fiji! Fiji!” wafted out through the night air as Pool A – the so-called Group of Death – lurched into life.
With an hour of the match gone, the party was really starting.
It has been four long years since the 2011 World Cup campaign ended in such brutal fashion for Wales, captain Sam Warburton’s red card early in that semi-final with France ensuring that Warren Gatland’s men ultimately fell agonisingly short despite playing some of the best rugby of the tournament.
Wales hardly dare to dream this time around. Injuries to key players Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Webb and Jonathan Davies, allied to what is an exceptionally difficult group, have tempered the public’s expectations.
However, the sight of Fiji putting England under the cosh on Friday night, threatening at one stage to cause the mother of all upsets, certainly gave cause for hope.
England’s late rally and eventual bonus-point win against the Pacific Island nation has undoubtedly made life trickier for Wales, and for Australia, the third of the heavyweight trio of nations that make up Pool A.
Both nations know now that they, too, are likely to have to go for broke and try to run in four tries against an extremely dangerous and physical Fiji team or risk losing out on qualification from the pool by a single point.
Even if they do, Pool A could be decided by points difference. It remains extremely unlikely – with the result in the head-to-head clash between the two teams tied on points the first criteria used to separate them – but even the remote possibility makes the clash with Uruguay today more than just a casual hit-out six days before what is sure to be a titanic tussle with England at Twickenham.
Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach, admitted on Friday that he would much prefer to have had England’s draw, with Uruguay last up, potentially knowing by what margin they needed to win to qualify. But these are the cards Wales have been dealt and they are now in the awkward position of needing to rest players for the England game, while simultaneously trying to run up a cricket score.
Not that Gatland was admitting as much, saying that the result and the performance were the most important thing at the Millennium Stadium this afternoon.
“I don’t think our group will come down to points difference,” the New Zealander said.
“We have to win the game and after that it’s about scoring points. The first priority is to win. We have to put a lot of focus into these two games [Uruguay and England] which we’re doing with a short turnaround.
“It is a short training week for England so we have mixed and matched a little with the focus on England.”
That was more than obvious from the team selection. The decision to rest George North, Alun Wyn Jones, Jamie Roberts, Dan Biggar and Taulupe Faletau was a sign not only that Wales want to keep them fresh for England in six days’ time but also that they cannot afford any more injuries to key players.
Quite how much we will learn about those who do play this afternoon against Uruguay – who have only three professionals in their World Cup squad – remains to be seen but there are certainly intriguing sub-plots to this match today.
Gatland initially reacted cagily to questions regarding his decision to field Warburton at blindside flanker, and Justin Tipuric at openside, for the first time under his watch, insisting that it was motivated by nothing more than the desire to “rest a few”.
Though later he admitted that playing two No 7s might be a tactic Wales returned to later in the tournament.
“I played with Justin in 2013 and in Argentina the autumn before that,” the Wales captain said. “I enjoy it. I can work on my tackling and on ball carrying; a bit more go-forward responsibility. I’m more than happy to be playing six.”
Elsewhere, the temptation to send Liam Williams and Samson Lee on the to field wrapped in cotton wool must be overwhelming. Both will be making their returns from long-term injuries and it will be fascinating to watch how they get on.
The former international Jonathan Davies was the latest to argue, in these pages yesterday, that Williams’s deployment at full-back rather than Halfpenny, not to mention the presence of Scott Williams in the centres, could turn out to be blessings in disguise for Wales.
That may be putting too positive a spin on things. Halfpenny is the best place kicker in the world and his absence deprives Wales of virtually guaranteed points from penalties anywhere up to the halfway line and beyond.
But Williams does offer a more potent threat with ball in hand and he will be looking to carve open the Uruguayans running from deep today.
Gareth Davies will seek to establish himself as first-choice scrum-half, dictating the tempo of the game together with Rhys Priestland, for whom this is likely to be an emotional occasion. The Bath-bound player, 28, was first choice four years ago but has endured a torrid time of it since, becoming something of a pantomime villain.
With Wales’s goal-kicking options not running desperately deep beyond the first-choice fly-half Dan Biggar, Priestland could have a big role to play for Wales in this World Cup. He is certainly likely to get plenty of practice from the tee against Uruguay today. It is the World Cup’s first real mismatch but Wales cannot let that affect them. They must go out there and put the Uruguayans to the sword.
Point to prove: Liam Williams, in at full-back after the injury to Leigh Halfpenny, knows Wales must show attacking intent