There’s a joke going around that Wales feel the World Cup Final is on 26th September 2015. The punchline being that if the Welsh beat England at Twickenham that night, anything that happens subsequently will pale into insignificance.
In the valleys, rugby is the people’s game. I attended a golden wedding anniversary yesterday of two dear Welsh friends. The bride and groom assembled nearly all of the wedding party of half a century previous; speeches were made, songs were sung and when it came to a special gift for the couple, the pen of Barry John, the legendary Wales fly half, adorned it. Rugby isn’t just a sport in Cymru, it’s a focal point, a religion, a way of keeping people (and marriages) together. Every drop of unity that this incredible sport of rugby squeezes out, Wales swallows. Rugby is its past, its present and its future.
It would be a romantic notion too far to suggest Gatland has paid heed to this in selecting his World Cup 31. But by coincidence or intention, the gnarly Kiwi has selected a squad that succeeds in pleasing those types of rugby fan who would have been equally disappointed by Lancaster. If selection was a popularity contest, Gatland would be through to the next round.
Let’s examine some of the choices –
The Back Row
Despite Robshaw’s credentials, many England fans have been bemoaning the lack of what they refer to as an out and out openside. Matt Kvesic, so impressive for Gloucester at the end of last season, bit the dust in the first cull and then, of course, there’s the much debated Steffon Armitage. It seems we will never know how England would benefit from the man who is ball-stealer-in-chief for Toulon, the best team in Europe. In Wales’ squad they have Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, two genuinely world class sevens: players able to govern a breakdown and turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye. How beneficial to be able to replace one with the other. It is worth noting that Australia are another team with this type of advantage.
At number 8, England have good options, whereas Gatland has only selected Taulupe Faletau. This remains for me the only head-scratching element of the Wales squad – who else does Gatland have in mind?
Again like Australia, Wales have selected only two hookers. This is not an unquestionable decision, Wales play four games in twenty days, but it does free up the choice around second row and give Gatland welcome options. Uncertainty at the line out and Dylan Hartley’s ban have meant England picked three No.2s. If Lancaster was able to select just a couple, someone with Nick Easter’s experience and adaptability could have been added to the squad.
Contention around England’s midfield will be beginning to bore you. But Wales, even with the injury to the influential Jonathan Davies, have resisted the temptation to push any panic buttons and gone with what they know, picking three rather than four centres; again, allowing for flexibility to the fullback and wing selection. The prospect of someone like George North covering the outside centre channel will certainly help, especially as this allows the likes of Liam Williams to start. Wales’ back line has a reassuring interchangeability to it and looks good, whichever way it lines up.
Much as it will grate with Lancaster’s ‘we are a team’ ethos, this sport of ours can be changed by individual brilliance. A player who can take the field, alter the tempo and inject something a little different. As Danny Cipriani walked away from the England Camp on Thursday, many onlookers saw the x-factor option leaving with him. Gatland, in contrast, has included the impish brilliance of Matthew Morgan. The Bristol playmaker’s inclusion is the type to lift the hearts of those impractical quarters that feel this game should be played on a whim. Against a tiring defence, Morgan will find holes others can’t. He is not a safe option, but then, rarely is anything of consequence won by playing safe.
Wales’ squad enjoyed an impressive victory in Dublin last Saturday. It was a win that had Shaun Edwards’ cologne all over it; organised, unified, offensively defensive. The sort of performance that would have given Lancaster pride had he coached it, and shivers because he doesn’t.
England line up against the same opposition this coming weekend. Ireland are the final warm up opposition before the host nation’s Rugby World Cup kicks off. They will put out a very similar side to the one they hope to field against Wales on the 26th. They have to respond, not only to Welsh shots being fired, but to calls from the media and fans that England’s selection is wrong.
Gatland will peruse tomorrow morning’s papers with ease. It appears he has made it through this difficult ‘who to choose’ phase safely. He heads into rugby’s biggest tournament with his country behind him. Time will tell if that will make things better or worse.
Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.