/ Features

Team Profile: Wales

Updated: Monday, 02 Feb 2009 18:07

Stephen Jones - Gatland's man in times of trouble?
Stephen Jones - Gatland's man in times of trouble?

Video

History: Wales have achieved gloriously at times, most notably in the 'Golden Age' of the 1970s. There have been periods of underachievement too, but professionalism has been good to Wales, not least because it has helped stem the flow of players to Rugby League, and they are in the midst of a excellent period, with some glitches. They won Grand Slams in 2005 and 2008 and currently hold the second highest Grand Slam total of any nation – 10 – behind England with 12.

Coach: Warren Gatland. Intensity, clever psychology and bold team selection are the Gatland trademarks. He has been a huge success since he was forced out of the Ireland job in 2001, when a 'too basic' game plan and, some say, political machinations saw him replaced by Eddie O'Sullivan. Since then, Waikato, Wasps and Wales have all achieved well ahead of expectations on his watch.

Captain: Ryan Jones. The young tyro of the superb back-row of the 2005 Grand Slam winning side, Jones is now a senior man in the Welsh setup. Last year, in his first season as captain, he led Wales to a stunning Grand Slam success. Despite his relative inexperience, Jones is tipped for a Lions leadership role in some quarters. Establishing himself as a dominant back-rower in this competition might see him move into pole position.

Key Men: Martyn Williams, Mike Phillips, Stephen Jones.

After an excellent career which seemed to have ended with retirement RWC 2007, Williams was enticed out of retirement by Gatland and starred in last year's Grand Slam season. Basically, he brings a superb ability to read the game and keep the ball moving quickly in the contact area; a key to the Welsh high tempo. No other side has an attacking seven to compare.

At scrum-half Phillips is often the beneficiary of having that pace in the game. Built like a back-rower with the fluidity of movement and gracefulness of a top class back, he has made the nine jersey his own under Gatland, taking over from Dwayne Peel. When planning to beat Wales, every side must figure out how to limit Phillips' capacity to turn matches in an instant with a quick break.

Though not as easy on the eye as James Hook or Gavin Henson, Jones is critically important to Wales. A true match winning out-half who can defend stoutly, kick solidly and, most important, make the right decisions time after time. Crucially, despite his less obvious talents with the ball in hand, he is always prepared to take the right attacking gamble. Hook is arguably more talented, but until Jones hangs up his boots he may well find that the Llanelli man is the out-half Gatland will tend to turn to in times of need. Hook may look the better individual, but at this point the team appears to play better with Jones at 10.

Playing Style: Clearly, Wales are at their best when they play with a very high intensity and tempo. That starts at the breakdown, where Gatland unfailingly picks packs geared towards rucking the opposition off the park. The issue for opposition coaches is whether to try to match it, or else to try to take the tempo out of the game at certain stages; the Leicester/England way. Go toe to toe, or keep your hands up and pick them off with the jab?

If the Welsh pack do establish some momentum, watch out. Phillips, Stephen Jones, and the back row, have a licence to go for it on the ball – offloads, angles, blind passes and anything else that keeps the pace up. Out wide, you have the long passing of the likes of Gavin Henson and James Hook, either of whom can play at 12, the hard lines of Tom Shanklin and Lee Byrne at 13 and 15, and the unique challenge posed by Shane Williams on the wing. It's also worth noting that, thanks to their work-rate, Gatland teams are notoriously difficult to pass once you go behind. As well as matching their effort levels, discipline is crucial to beating them. Taking an early lead can do wonders.

Prediction: Wales are perfectly set up to beat England and have plenty to trouble Ireland with as well. Of Italy and Scotland, the chances are at least one will give them a scare but they ought to pull through. France, who they play in Paris, are possibly the most difficult team for them; there is a psychological hurdle to be cleared and getting all 15 players on board for the 80 minutes is a tough task for Gatland. Four wins, with defeat in Paris, is on the cards.

Brendan Cole

Powered by NewsWhip