Wales out to spring a surprise
August 4, 2011
Wales boss Warren Gatland orchestrates proceedings in training © Getty Images
Wales boss Warren Gatland is out to spring a surprise on England when the go head-to-head in a Rugby World Cup warm-up clash at Twickenham on Saturday.
Gatland's squad will step up their preparations for the sport's showpiece event having completed two punishing training camps in Poland last month. And it is that physical readiness that Gatland believes could give his side the edge as they bid to overturn their narrow 26-19 defeat in this year's Six Nations.
Gatland will parade 11 of the team that game against the eventual champions, the exceptions being fullback Rhys Priestland, wing George North, hooker Huw Bennett and No.8 Toby Faletau. Fly-half Stephen Jones wins his 101st cap, making him the most decorated Test player in Welsh rugby history, while flanker Sam Warburton is captain instead of an injured Matthew Rees.
Gavin Henson, though, has to wait for his pre-World Cup chance, which in terms of potential competitive action now boils down to just two games - England at home next week, followed by Argentina seven days later.
"For us, these next two games against England provide an opportunity for players to put their hands up in terms of selection for the World Cup, but also getting some confidence as we look towards New Zealand," said Gatland.
"The guys are in great shape physically, and I think it is going to be an absolute full-on Test match from both teams. There is a huge amount to play for, and there should be no lack of motivation. We've been delighted with the players in the last month or so. They have been absolutely fantastic. We are expecting to go out there and play pretty well."
Wales' two previous World Cup warm-ups against England proved to be horrible mis-matches, beaten 43-9 on home soil in 2003 and then thumped 62-5 at Twickenham four years ago. Although Gatland was not at the coaching helm for either of those matches, memories still linger.
"We know what happened in 2007," he said, "but also that Wales took a hammering at home in 2003, being absolutely mauled to bits by England up front, so let's not forget that. These two games against England, coming out of that, will give us a lot of confidence of where we are physically.
"I know England will try to come and dominate us physically, and that's a big challenge for us. But I would like to think they might get a little bit of a surprise where we are, and how well prepared we are, in the physical stakes at the moment."
Lock Alun-Wyn Jones, who wins his 50th cap this weekend, and front-row forward Bennett are the only starting XV survivors from Wales' tortuous Twickenham experience in 2007. "Playing up front that day was a pretty tough place to be, and the scoreline represented how tough it was for all of us," recalled Jones. "The team that wins on Saturday will be the team that plays as a team. The team that loses will be one that plays as individuals looking to go to a World Cup."
Gatland, meanwhile, faced an inevitable question today about Henson's absence from the Twickenham trip - and his answer was unequivocal. "He [Henson] is just one of the guys who wasn't selected for this first game. There are a lot of other players in the same boat," he said. "Gavin Henson is no more special than anyone else when it comes to the squad. We don't go around talking about Gavin Henson at every opportune moment.
"He is part of a squad of 40 players, and if he gets a chance he gets a chance, and if he doesn't get a chance, he doesn't. It's like anyone else. He might get a chance next week, maybe the following week, maybe not. At the moment, he hasn't been selected in the 22 for this game."
Players who were not considered for the August opener included Rees (neck), fullback Lee Byrne (knee), wing Leigh Halfpenny (ankle), fly-half James Hook (neck) and prop Adam Jones (toe).
But Gatland added: "There a couple of minor niggles, nothing to concern us long term. When you see the list, I suppose it looks more hazardous than it is. Some of it is very much precautionary at the moment, and we are expecting the players to be available in the next couple of weeks."
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