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

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Sport Rugby World Cup 2015 - By Tom Cary

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

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