With Wales playing their first RWC Semi-Final since 1987 against the troubled and precocious French, the winner will take their seat at the top table of world rugby against one of Australia and New Zealand on Sunday 23rd October in the World Cup Final.
Momentum. A key word bandied around rugby circles, but what does it mean? At its most basic level, you need momentum to go forward. In a rugby context that could be a tackle, a scrum, a maul. But it’s not just a physical act; it can also be a state of mind. And it is something Wales have in bucket loads at this very moment, something none of their contenders for rugby’s crown can claim to have.
It is a process that began a couple of years ago, but in no way has it been perfect. Andy Powell’s drunken trip down the M4 in a golf buggy is like a parade float to this suggestion – hardly subtle.
Neither has it been obvious. Warren Gatland has been in charge for five years and though there have been pockets of success (the Grand Slam in 2008 being the largest) the ascent has hardly been plane sailing. One of their last acts before leaving for New Zealand was to lose to a bludgeoning England side and as an Englishman I took that as a sign of progress for the men in white. A sign of momentum.
Wrong. Sadly the English never really got off the plane on arrival, instead choosing to leap from the back of the docking ferry, casting aspersions at nearby female staff as they went whilst the backroom staff fiddled with the IRB’s balls, much to the chagrin of organisers and the blazers back at HQ. But at least it gives the RFU something to do until the next Six Nations as they review what went wrong.
So it falls to the kindergarten of world rugby that is the current Welsh side. Eight of the match day team that beat Ireland were under the age of 23. To put that in perspective, they weren’t even born the last time Wales were in this position.
Audacious? Maybe. Impressive? Definitely. And inspirational. As a loyal England fan, I feel no guilt in my support of our British cousins. The Welsh love their rugby and the only country that has a comparable infatuation is New Zealand. Both are countries of about 4 million people with a football team of no real quality, where those lucky enough to step out in the hallowed shirt are instant celebrities. With the exception of the likes of Wilkinson, many top international players still don’t turn the head of Joe Bloggs.
The effect of youth over experience is a developing theme at this World Cup. Australia’s half backs are under 24. New Zealand’s fly-half will be 22. There is always a lot of talk of the confidence and naivety of the young, that ignorance is bliss when it comes to the big occasions. The fact that the reaction to 22 year old Priestland been replaced by the mercurial James Hook was one of slight concern says it all.
James Hook is one of the most talented players of his generation, with plenty of caps under his belt. But such has been the form of Priestland, only brought in because of injury to the other preferred options, he is considered now almost an inferior option! Heady stuff indeed. But don’t forget a little guy called Shane Williams, at the unthinkable age of 34.
So what of their opposition – well it’s the French, they’ve been shocking all tournament bar fifty minutes that was good enough to see a lamentable English side. It amazes me that after all these years with different set ups and personnel they stick to their typecasting of the Jekyll and Hyde role in world rugby. Terrible to terrific in eighty minutes, all the time.
Don’t forget this Semi-finalist lost to Italy earlier this year. Impossible, n’est pas?
They still have players of huge quality. Dimitri Yachvili presents a passing and tactical kicking threat to go to the dextrous destructive ability of Julien Bonnaire and Imanol Harinordoquy in the back row. There is some dead weight in the side with some being selected because of who they know rather than what, but they cannot be underestimated as failure will follow swiftly.
Everyone expects the French intervention, but whether they can pull another lapin out of the hat for the second week in row….
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Shane Williams, James Hook, Mike Phillips; Gethin Jenkins, Huw Bennett, Adam Jones, Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton (capt), Toby Faletau.
France: Maxime Medard; Vincent Clerc, Aurelien Rougerie, Maxime Mermoz, Alexis Palisson; Morgan Parra, Dimitri Yachvili; Jean-Baptiste Poux, William Servat, Nicolas Mas, Pascal Pape, Lionel Nallet, Thierry Dusautoir (capt), Julien Bonnaire, Imanol Harinordoquy.
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