Monday 18 December 2017

Gatland reaches for sky

James Corrigan

ANY doubts as to how Wales intend to beat Tri Nations opposition for just the second time in 11 efforts were put to rest yesterday when, for the first time in his tenure, coach Warren Gatland has insisted on the Millennium Stadium roof being open.

If the Wallabies are to be flattened, it is the home tight-five who are going to do the flattening.

The Welsh camp were keen to stress this was not a negative move as the forecast is fine. But, as the downpour continued into the evening, those predictions looked more opportunistic than ever. Judging by the smirks of a few of the Welsh management during training at the stadium yesterday, a deluge would not be unwelcome.

Dismiss the brave, but rather outrageous attempt by the skills coach, Rob Howley, to claim that Wales were exposing themselves to the elements with an eye on next year's showpiece Down Under. "The big picture for us is there is a World Cup in New Zealand next year, and we know the conditions having toured there in the summer," he said, somehow keeping a straight face. The truth is rather simpler.

After watching Australia beat New Zealand in Hong Kong last weekend, and after seeing this redoubtable attacking outfit improve steadily over the Tri Nations series, it is blindingly obvious that it is from Nos 1 to 5 where Wales' best chances lie.

Gatland's men have suffered from debilitating injuries in the back-row and in the backs, but in the engine room they will be operating at full throttle. The Lions front-row is reunited for just the second time since that 2009 tour in South Africa, while in behind Alun Wyn Jones and Bradley Davies are the two first-choice locks. Expect the last-named to take it to Australia.

"I wouldn't mind putting the ball in Bradley Davies' hands as much as possible," said Gatland, missing his main ball-carriers in Ryan Jones and Jamie Roberts. "We're giving him a bit of licence. He's a player that's really come on in the last 12 months."

Gatland would be just as thrilled to see the scrum making early inroads. The Australians' vulnerability in the set-piece is one of international rugby's great cliches, but, as Gatland pointed out, it can be a key area. "If there is one way of beating Australia it's to put them under pressure up front," said the Kiwi. "When England won down there in the summer it started from a dominant scrum. At times, it has been frail and at other times it's been on song. It depends."

With a 20-year-old -- James O'Connor -- assuming the kicking duties from Matt Giteau for Australia, this might have also have influenced Wales' open-roof philosophy. (© Independent News Service)

Wales -- J Hook; W Harries, T Shanklin, A Bishop, S Williams; S Jones, M Phillips; G Jenkins, M Rees (capt), A Jones; B Davies, A Wyn Jones; D Lydiate, S Warburton, J Thomas. Reps: H Bennett, P James, D Jones, M Williams, R Rees, D Biggar, C Czekaj.

Australia -- K Beale; J O'Connor, A Ashley-Cooper, M Giteau, D Mitchell; Q Cooper, W Genia; B Robinson, S Moore, B Alexander; M Chisholm, N Sharpe; R Elsom (capt), D Pocock, B McCalman. Reps: S Faingaa, J Slipper, D Mumm, R Brown, L Burgess, B Barnes, L Turner.

Wales v Australia

Live, BBC2 & Setanta Ireland, 2.30

Irish Independent

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