Gwyn Jones: Wales may well beat Australia but Warren Gatland has changed

Warren Gatland
-Credit: (Image: Huw Evans Picture Agency Ltd)

Let’s face it, so little is known about either side at Test match level that anything is possible in this Australia v Wales match. It could be a blow out in either direction or a narrow close-fought encounter.

The only thing we can base our opinions on is what these players have done at regional level this season. Unfortunately, that was a car crash for three of the four teams, with only the Ospreys achieving respectability with 10 wins in the league. I am surprised therefore that there are only three players from that region included in the 23, whereas Cardiff have five players in the squad who only managed four wins in 18 matches.

True, Cardiff played some entertaining rugby and there was a period over the New Year when they hosted Bath and Harlequins in Europe that the Arms Park was the place to be. Sadly, results did not follow and despite blooding players they couldn’t turn the undoubted excitement into victories.

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The other thing I find a little surprising is that Warren Gatland has chosen players from the free-flowing, higher risk Cardiff Rugby rather than the structured, set piece side that is the Ospreys.

He will have spent that last few weeks coaching the Cardiff players to play more like the Ospreys. It just seems a little odd.

I think the biggest change in Gatland in his second term is his inconsistency in selection. In his first tenure, team announcements were utterly predictable. There may have been the odd position up for grabs, but generally Gatland knew his best team and picked them time after time.

This time around Gatland doesn’t know his best side and there is an air of desperation in his search for individuals that can compete at international level.

He wants a team that is more physical, and particularly a bigger and more powerful fly-half. Having considered Jacob Beetham briefly, he is know trying his luck with Ben Thomas.

I like Thomas as a player, he is a natural footballer and made a big step forward this season in becoming stronger in contact. He is more consistent and confident at centre as a result. But he is a reluctant fly-half, and I’m not sure that you can have that mentality if you are to play in the most influential position on the park.

You have to be someone who wants that responsibility, who thrives on the challenge of making those split-second reads that determine how the team will play.

Size isn’t everything too. In the match between the All Blacks and England this weekend, there are two relative bantam-weights leading their teams in attack in McKenzie and Smith. Both are about 5’10 and 12 stone.

Wales had a tough afternoon against South Africa in Twickenham. Gatland’s post-match interviews were all about the positives that he took from the game. It comes to something when you are relieved that it was only a 40 pointer.

Wales played the same way they have done all season, trying to cross gainliness with one up carries. They failed. Gatland acknowledges that with his current personnel, Wales will struggle to win the collisions to allow Warrenball to succeed against a team like South Africa.

He is absolutely right about that. But what about France, Ireland England and New Zealand? Are Wales likely to be powering through these anytime soon?

Rugby is a collision sport. And if you win the collisions you usually win the game. But when you cannot rely on brute force and fitness to win those battles you have to be creative, imaginative or include some subtlety and skill to give you more of a chance of running at weak shoulders and hesitant defences. That has to be the blueprint for Wales going forward.

However, Wales’ direct approach may be good enough for Australia. Seldom has there been a better opportunity to beat the Wallabies in Australia.

Eddie Jones left the national side in tatters and their domestic game is also under financial pressure. Australia have turned to another Kiwi coach to lift them out of the mire. Joe Schmidt is in charge for the first time and he has a mountain of work on his hands.

Schmidt’s coaching style is uber-prescriptive. Each player has their exact movements planned out in exact detail for at least the first three phases of every sequence. It delivered great success with Ireland but it takes time to learn. The inflexibility gives you no room to react when the picture changes and under pressure and tired in a test match, players revert to type and do what comes instinctively.

There are a lot of moving parts that need to be in harmony for Australia to come good. And so if Wales can get amongst them, disrupt their phases, they can knock the Wallabies off their game.

Goal kicking will be key, especially for Wales. If Wales can squeeze the Wallabies into mistakes and keep them in their own half, they may be able to build scoreboard pressure without having to score tries. Ben Thomas is not a regular kicker but clearly he has a decent boot. There will be plenty of pressure on his shoulders.

Highlights of Australia v Wales are on S4C on Saturday at 7pm

WRU leave me underwhelmed

Finally, I must say how underwhelmed I was with the WRU’s five-year strategic plan announced recently. I appreciate that this was a high level list of aspirations but I presume these reports are meant to inspire the rugby public at what could be achieved.

I can’t imagine most serious rugby nations aspiring to be fifth best in the world. Nor do I think that we should be happy to aim for regions simply being in the play-off of the URC. If so, the Ospreys have already met the five-year goal.

I am hoping that this report is a gentle warning shot before the decisions that were promised will be made in the autumn. What Welsh rugby needs is strong leadership that puts forward a decisive plan and that the individuals at the helm have the political acumen and perseverance to push through much-needed change.

I am all in favour of a period of consultation. But the systemic problems facing the professional game are well known to all stakeholders. There are enough ‘rugby people’ who have held senior positions within the WRU for long enough to know what needs to be done from a rugby perspective. The financial management and commercial expertise is there too. Change will be painful, it cannot be avoided. I have the scars on my back from my unsuccessful time working on the ‘Sir Tasker Watkins report’ twenty years ago. The WRU must have clarity in their vision and the determination to see it through.