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Semi-final countdown: the view from Wales

With the Welsh squad less than 48 hours away from the biggest game of their rugby lives, we turned to our man in the valleys for some pre-match guidance.

The main man? James Hook in training this morning.
The main man? James Hook in training this morning.
Image: David Davies/PA Wire/Press Association Images

WALES WERE SUFFICIENTLY strong to put the hopes of the Irish nation to the sword last weekend, but how far can our Celtic brethren really expect to go in this year’s tournament?

To help answer this question– and many more– The Score turned to its correspondant for all things leek-related, the enigmatic Woodster of cracking Welsh rugby blog The Coal Face.

We began by subtly setting the tone:

The Score: Bonjour! (You see what I’m doing here?)

Woodster: I see. Bon, bon! Hopefully, it’ll be au revoir at 11 o’clock on Saturday morning.

The Score: Ooomph! That’s fighting talk. Before we get to that, though, let’s turn our attention to last weekend… any thoughts?

Woodster: About the Wales-Ireland game?

The Score: I think so. We’ve been quite depressed, but I think I’m ready to revisit the trauma. Let’s go.

Woodster: Well firstly, wasn’t it just a great game of rugby? A real test match. Both sides played their part. Wales were the better team on the day, but as I’ve been saying all week, I was very impressed with the way the Irish boys handled themselves after the loss. No hint of sour grapes, just professionalism; and they should be congratulated for that.

As we all expected, the game itself came down to the breakdown. Lydiate and Warburton just didn’t allow Ferris or O’Brien to build momentum, which forced Ireland to play behind the gain-line.

The Score: All the movement was lateral and very predictable… just swinging aimlessly from one side to the other… pick-and-goes that never went anywhere… [beginning to get emotional]… But enough of this! Let’s talk about the Welsh!

Rhys Priestland was very impressive against Ireland: composed, intelligent and he appears to have an enormous boot.

Woodster: I agree, I think he’s been a crucial part of our success so far…

The Score: He has the ruddy-cheeked look of a child, but he’s tough.

Woodster: It’s very difficult to tell what sort of a loss he’ll be this weekend, because it’s difficult for us to decipher quite why everything has “clicked” all of a sudden. Is it because the forwards are providing much cleaner ruck-ball, is it because Jamie Roberts has come back to form off his own back, or is it because Rhys Priestland?

Realistically, it’s a combination of all three, and we’ll miss Priestland, but at least we’ll have the two other elements in place.

The Score: We mentioned Hook last week, and the fact that he’s not really a master of any one trade.

Woodster: We did, and in the same way that I suggested Hooky isn’t the best No10 in the squad, I don’t think he’s the 2nd best No10 available, either.

The Score: You’d prefer to see Stephen Jones in there, I presume.

Stephen Jones: a sensible alternative? (Nigel French/EMPICS Sport)

Woodster: Hook is naturally brilliant rugby player– one of our most skillful–  and that manifests itself in individual acts of brilliance, but because he hasn’t spent a significant amount of game-time in the No10 shirt for either club or country, he hasn’t learnt the fundamental game management skills that you need to play such a pivotal position.

It’s is a massive risk.

The Score: There’s an argument to be made for saying that Jamie Roberts’ return to form has largely been down to the service he’s been receiving from Priestland.

Woodster: Yeah, I think there’s some truth in that. Priestland forces the opposition back row to keep an eye on him, which gives Jamie Roberts more space in which to do his thing–

The Score: His “running over people” thing?

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Woodster: — but if we look at the last time Jamie Roberts performed like he’s doing now, it was on the 2009 Lions Tour outside none other than Stephen Jones.

Yes, his “running over people thing”! Pretty useful to have, really!

The Score: Applying this template to the semi-final, then: how do you see the game unfolding? Where will Wales have opportunities and, conversely, where will they be threatened?

I dare you to answer this without making reference to Les Bleus’ unpredictability or using a cliche like “they blow hot and cold”!

Woodster: If we’d picked Stephen Jones to replace Priestland, I’d be very confident of our having enough in the tank to win the game. Regardless of what people say about France, Wales at their absolute best are better than France at their absolute best.

I think both teams will now attack a lot in the 10 channel. France have a tiny scrum-half [Morgan Parra] playing at stand-off and both Roberts and George North will be licking their lips at the prospect of running at him.

The Score: A tiny man with a huge ego. (God, I love France!)

Woodster: James Hook is also probably our least reliable No10 in defence, which doesn’t help. France will look to get Rougerie acquainted with him pretty early on.

What gives with Parra at 10?! I guess we don’t even really know who’s picking the team.

Morgan Parra: he’s got swagger. (Peter Morrison/AP/Press Association Images)

The Score: Aye, it’s a bizarre selection. Parra, to my eyes at least, always looks massively assured at scrum-half.

Woodster: I’m a big fan of him at 9.
The Score: And I have an enormous soft-spot for Trinh-Duc, who has a wonderful imagination. Plus, his comparative weaknesses are mitigated somewhat by the strengths of those around him. Parra gives him direction and the large, mobile centre pairings offer defensive cover. I see Trinh-Duc as the natural selection, but… Lièvremont. [shrugs]

Woodster: Lièvremental, you mean! Williams and Hook are two examples of where France may look to target, and they also may go for the inside ball to the 13 channel, as Jonathan Davies rushes out of the line a lot and leaves space behind him.

The Score: I’ll earmark that little observation. It could well prove prophetic.

Woodster: I hope not!

The Score: Let’s tempt fate for a moment. Wales have beaten France… you’re hyperventilating… thought’s of the final begin to flood in.

What would the result mean for Wales? How big a deal would it be?

Woodster: I was speaking to a friend last night about this very issue. He said that someone told him that it would be the biggest thing in welsh rugby history if we got to the World Cup Final. This friend corrected them and said, no actually, I think you’ll find it would be the biggest thing in Welsh HISTORY if we made the World Cup Final.

I agree with him. Rugby is our sport: we love it, we talk it, we do it to death. It would mean a huge amount to the country. Welsh folk are pretty friendly anyway, but i think you’d sense a change in the mood of the entire nation.

It’s no good being rubbish at the thing you take most pride in.

The Score: Katherine Jenkins would be set for life, too. She’s be singing to packed stadia for years to come!

If they got there, could Wales give a proper account of themselves in the Final? Would they be competitive?

Woodster: They’d be competitive, alright. We haven’t seen the best of this Welsh team yet.

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