Wales turn to Jones the Cool

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“Who beat the Wallabies, but good old Sospan Fach?”, runs a line in the second verse added to Wales’s best known rugby anthem in tribute to Llanelli’s victory over the first ever Australian touring team in 1908.

All of Wales will be hoping that it is a pointer to today’s World Cup clash with Australia at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. Much of their hopes will rest on a Llanelli player, outside-half and former captain Stephen Jones, restored to first choice after displaying the best of his considerable virtues as a replacement in Wales’s second-half comeback against Canada in Nantes this week.

After a lengthy injury spell that cast doubt on his participation in the tournament, Jones – an enabler rather than a game-breaker in his own right – displayed cool, calm judgment when it was most needed.

He returns in a selection that sidelines the new and brings on the old, with Gareth Thomas and Colin Charvis, also second-half substitutes in Nantes, back at full-back and back row respectively.

Thomas has acquired some of the qualities of certain England cricket captains. He is probably not Wales’s best player in any position – the axed Kevin Morgan, not for the first time in his career, can feel unlucky – but retains his place by virtue of ability to inspire others. The combative Charvis, a big-game player, also has a personal target to aim for since his try against Canada equalled Carlo Checcinato of Italy’s record for a forward of 21 international tries.

One concern for Wales will be that a dangerous back division lacks midfield subtlety. Jones’s best performance came with Gavin Henson offering a second playmaking option at inside centre two years ago. Australia, always outstanding in defence, will offer considerably more resistance than a Canadian team who were running out of steam by the time Jones and Thomas were introduced. It might have made sense to play James Hook at 12 rather than reduce him to the bench.

All of this will be academic if the Welsh pack performs as poorly at the breakdown as it did in Nantes. The Australian back row must have suspected they were being lulled into a false sense of security as they watched their next opponents being outplayed by Canada’s part-timers. Any repetition today, and a massacre can be expected.

The Wallabies have already shown themselves adept at massacres, putting Japan away 91-3 with clinical lucidity. If the match were in Lyon or Nantes, they would expect to win in some comfort. The Australian grievance over the venue is entirely reasonable. It is ludicrous that Australia should have to play away to Wales in a World Cup hosted by France.

A further subplot is the presence of Australian backs coach Scott Johnson. In his previous role with Wales he was either, according to taste, the genius who inspired some brilliant improvised attacking play or the villain who undermined his boss, coach Mike Ruddock. The crowd reaction to him today will be revealing.

Wales must compete at the breakdown, putting pressure on Australia’s venerable half-backs and limiting the opportunities given to Matt Giteau and Stirling Mortlock to break in the midfield, and hold their own in line-out and scrummage. None, on recent form, is a given.

But if these can be achieved, they can compete as effectively as a team missing several first choices did in Australia in June, leading until injury time. If not, it could be embarrassing.

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