Recently by Kumari Tilakawardane
So here we are again, the penultimate round of the Six Nations.
I keep hearing whispered mentions of it, notes passed secretly, even a few smoke signals... The Welsh public are talking about Grand Slams. But it's important not to forget that in order to get to the mythical status of 'Grand Slam Winners 2012' Wales have first to overcome Italy and France.
The Italian team are often billed as the underdogs, the also-rans and occasionally 'an easy game'. This, as many teams have found out in recent years, is categorically not the case. The Azzurri are a formidable unit and will no doubt hurl a few challenges Wales's way this Saturday at the Millennium Stadium.
The Millennium Stadium factor is undoubtedly a massive boost for Wales, and makes home- advantage a bigger advantage for Wales than any other nation. The mark of truly great sides has to be the ability to win home and away (something the Welsh team have done with aplomb of late) and while Italy are maybe not all the way there currently, they are certainly on the cusp of making it. In other fixtures home-advantage can sometimes count for nothing and be turned on its head; games between Italy and Wales show how important that home crowd's support can be. In the first Six Nations meeting between the two sides in Cardiff, Wales triumphed 47-16. The following year the Italians lost by only 10 points. In 2002 Wales beat the Azzurri with a 24 point margin; in 2003 Italy were the victors by 30-22. Wales are rightly favourites to beat Italy this year: given their current form and stock of players they arguably should be favourites for every game in this tournament. But it's not in the Welsh psyche to get complacent... is it?
I'm particularly excited to see the magnificent Sergio Parisse do battle with Toby Faletau, the Welsh rising star. Two of the best No 8s in world rugby at the moment, these two should promise some eye-catching breaks and strong drives to name just 2 of their seemingly infinite skills. On paper Parisse's experience and undisputed classiness would look to give him the edge over Faletau, although with the Welsh pack as dominant and on-form as it is I wouldn't be willing to put any money on it.
The Italians are known for their brutal forward-pack and this has been virtually their main weapon thus far in the tournament. The Italian backs haven't been able to match the front 8, whereas the Welsh backs have, without exception, been excellent. Yes, perhaps Jamie Roberts had a quiet game against Scotland. Okay, Leigh Halfpenny wasn't as potent in the third game as he was in the second. The important thing about Wales is they have an unbelievable amount of quality strength in depth. It's impossible to displace either of the incumbent centres, but Scott Williams certainly did a hell of a job trying. Lloyd Williams and Rhys Webb are two top quality scrum halves, kept out of the first XV and off the bench respectively by some barn-storming form from Mike Phillips that has stayed strong since the World Cup. When Matthew Rees found himself injured prior to the start of the tournament Welsh hearts sank. That was nothing however, compared to how much they sank when his more than capable replacement Huw Bennett also did himself a mischief. But lo and behold, Rees's understudy at the Scarlets Ken Owens stepped up and had a great performance in the most difficult of games - England v Wales. It's difficult to find a position where Wales are lacking cover; selection headaches of this nature must be a wonderful problem for Gatland et al.
Despite all this, I still think it's much too early to be uttering those 2 words. To my mind, for the next day and a half at least, they're swear words. Don't get me wrong, I'm not superstitious. But I'll be crossing every finger, clutching my rabbit's foot and praying to anything I can think of come game day.
Stephen Jones's late call up to the squad cannot really be labelled a shock. Let's review here: the man has 104 caps for Wales, has made 307 appearances for the Scarlets alone and currently lies second in the all-time points table for Europe's premier club competition the Heineken Cup. Experience like that is invaluable, and his inclusion now only makes his omission last week all the more baffling.
I noted at the time of the Welsh training squad's announcement that there was surprisingly little cover options at stand-off; and lo and behold the incumbent 10 Rhys Priestland limped off the field in the final Heineken pool game of the season with what looks to be a reasonably serious knee injury. That leaves James Hook and Gavin Henson as the only clear options at fly-half... if you can call them that.
Hook, a vastly talented player renowned the world over is not by a long shot a consistent starter in the Wales first XV. Perhaps cursed by his plethora of talents on the field, the former Osprey has been shunted from 10, to 12, to 15 without being able to nail down any one position. The label of 'utility player' has been more of a hinderance than a help to him, as it has turned out with fellow Welshman Jonathan Thomas in recent times.
Henson... is there much to say that hasn't already been said? Everyone has their own opinion about whether his inclusion in the preliminary squad was justified. I myself think he is a hugely talented player, but 3 games for the Blues in two different positions for me isn't enough justification for inclusion in the national set-up. He's been out of rugby, let alone Welsh rugby, for quite awhile and thrusting him back in after only a few months is a very risky gamble.
That said, the Gatland-era hasn't exactly been gamble and risk-free. Many argued the selection (albeit last-minute) of Priestland at fly-half in the summer was a risk; he ended up being lauded as one of the best 10s in the tournament and a major player to watch out for in years to come. Gambling on either Hook or Henson at fly-half could turn out to be a masterstroke. But the fact remains, neither have really proven themselves internationally in this position, and arguably both function much better at first-receiver, operating inside a consistent fly-half.
With the injury toll mounting, it looks as though Wales could make the trip over to Ireland missing a third of their team; Priestland, Dan Lydiate and Gethin Jenkins all suffered injuries last weekend and preferred second row partnership Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris are both still carrying injuries. So many frontline players missing in a tough tournament like the Six Nations surely calls for a calm head and experience - no one epitomises these qualities quite like Stephen Jones.
It may be Superstitious, but I've always thought Jones has to be included, precisely for times like these. And For Once In My Life, it looks like I may be right..