By Stuart PeelWales must be cursing the World Cup’s 4 year cycle. In 2003, the seeds were sewn for a Welsh revival in a spectacular, if ultimately unsuccessful, display of attacking rugby against the All Blacks. A new generation of exciting young talent were poised to re-establish Wales as serious contenders for honours and 2007 was viewed with huge optimism. This came to fruition with the Grand Slam of 2005, a campaign in which they showed flair to beat the French and blood and guts to defeat the despised English. Had the World Cup been played then, a semi final could have been a distinct possibility.
Fast forward 2 years. Mike Ruddock has been unceremoniously dumped; Wales have managed just one victory from each of their last two 6 Nations campaigns; they have won 4 of their last 16 internationals; they have been thrashed by England and France in their warm up games. Gareth Jenkins has waxed lyrical about playing the ‘Welsh way’, but victories are the currency through which international teams are measured and at the time of writing, Jenkins does not have much in the coffers. Once again they appear to be travelling to rugby’s global tournament more in hope than expectation.
A gloomy picture all round then? Well no. Wales remains the spiritual home of attacking rugby and, as shown in 2005, they have players who can be unstoppable when they hit their straps. Shane Williams remains one of the most lethal broken field runners in the game; Dwayne Peel is arguably the finest 9 in the world at present; Gareth Thomas leads from the front; and they have back row options including the ever-improving Alan Wyn-Jones, the resurgent Colin Charvis and the wonderful Martyn Williams. These are players who on their day can tear any team apart.
And then there is James Hook. Hook is one of the finest young talents in the world game and has taken to international rugby as if it is the easiest and most natural thing in the world. He is a nerveless kicker, a fine organiser and ghosts through gaps which don’t even appear to exist. How Jenkins utilises Hook could have far-reaching consequences for Wales’s chances. It is likely that he will play 12 outside the returning Stephen Jones (recently relieved of the captaincy burden) but it is only a matter of time before he inherits the 10 jersey for the long term.
Much of the focus on Wales has surrounded who is not in the squad as much as who is. To my mind, Gavin Henson is not a huge loss. He has never really pushed on at international level and so far is remembered on the pitch purely for one big tackle on a schoolboy and a well-struck penalty goal. Ryan Jones could potentially be a bigger loss but he has hardly played for 2 years anyway.
The draw has also been kind to Wales. Australia are the only one of rugby’s top powers who would not overpower the Welsh in the front five where they are both weak. Wales have a good chance and if they win that crucial pool match then who knows what may happen. Lose, and the quarter final is likely to prove the end of the road once again. One thing is certain though – we will be entertained.