Wales: Here Be Winged Giants.
So we finally know. Warren Gatland has whipped off the curtain on his next generation of Welsh Rugby Stars, and shown a hand that is inclined towards the big, the battering and the aggressive. For all the injuries faced by the Welsh squad in key locations, Gatland has managed to assemble a team that looks threatening and powerful, no more so than on the wings. In the known quantity of George North, Wales have a world recognised threat, who in recent games has seen his space vanish as teams mark him out of the game. Now Wales have a second North, or a first Cuthbert, as the next giant from the wing production line comes out. Cuthbert though, while perhaps not having quite the explosive step of North, actually ‘dwarfs’ the huge North (okay, by 2 inches, but such things count for a lot these days). Couple this with the emergence of Rhys Gill this season, whose form has made him one of the most dynamic front row players in Europe this year, and Wales seem to have found a new raft of players to go with the stellar World Cup finds.
So to their first test, a new Six Nations for a team who will no doubt be weighed down with their fair share of expectation given their showing in New Zealand, yet they face in their first fixture a team who carry their own helpings of national demands for success. Ireland are many pundits firm favourites for the tournament, and who would deny them such an accolade given the way in which their regions are romping over Europe. Add to that all this talk of revenge and surely the Irish will be firing on all cylinders? Well, for the pre-match talk at least, everything sounds very similar to a few months ago, when these teams contested a certain World Cup quarter final. Then the talk was of the Irish regions and their recent achievements, then the talk was of Mike Phillips and ‘owing Wales one’. Scan the news pages, and it seems like the Irish are stuck in the summer/autumn of 2011.
Wales will know though that this is an Irish team that at the very least ‘should’ be high on confidence, even without Brian O’Driscoll to shoulder the burden of the late game revival that we have become so used to. Yet, regional rugby aside, Wales remain a threat. In fact, all this talk of regions may as well be ignored for all the relevance it has to the national game. If international rugby was based on regional showings, Ireland and France would be the only nations to have contested a Six Nations in recent years, and these grand slams and championships that Wales and England have put together of late would be a figment of our imaginations. No, the team selected by Warren Gatland has more than enough fire power, in the forwards and the backs, to trouble anyone, whatever is happening in the clubs game. If the Irish stop a returning Jamie Roberts, then will they stop North, and if they stop North, will then they stop Cuthbert? Contending first with Gill and Jones in the front row, the Irish pack will have serious questions posed of them, and rolling from the back of the pack, an in-form Ryan Jones rumbling on with Faletau and Warburton – they will all have eyes on whoever carries the No10 jersey.
For weak links, the second row. Ireland will surely dominate in this area, and look to kick to the corner as often as possible and from wherever they are on the field. Try and run at this Welsh team, and the World Cup quarter final showing will come back on the Irish like a rash. There is one obvious game plan for Ireland, and it does not involve the backs or ‘open rugby’. Stick to what they know best, and the Irish should be able to squeeze the life out of Wales in this area alone, and might well have done even if Wales had their first choice second rows on display.
Yet the one unknown quantity is of course, and once again, Poland. Ireland will be the guinea pigs in many respects. The video footage released from the Poland camps looked hard, and toughening. All through the World Cup, game by game, the camp was dismissed as all talk, and nothing special, but what marked Welsh performances as special, was their ability to do it for the whole 80 minutes. Bring the same fitness levels to the field, and Wales may well be able to do to the Irish what the Irish hate most, beat them.
Ireland as favourites, no doubt there, but dismiss the Welsh at your peril, Grand Slams come on a three yearly cycle these days, and a return to a Polish spa might well be the start of another one…