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Friday, September 17, 1999 Published at 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK


Rugby's mystery-men

Times are looking for good for Wales - but we must not get carried away

Ex-Welsh international and respected rugby journalist, Eddie Butler, will be following Wales throughout the tournament for BBC News Online. Here he offers his opinion on an 'unquantifiable' Welsh side who may, or may not, pull off one of rugby's greatest coups.

The great thing about Wales is they're an unknown quantity.

They've had eight wins on the trot and no-one knows how much further the influence of Graham Henry can go.

There's little doubt that so far he's done incredible things, and if, as he says, his work is only half done, the Welsh fans can expect more dazzling displays in the future.


[ image: Graham Henry: Good coaching, good man-management]
Graham Henry: Good coaching, good man-management
Welsh performances in the past two World Cups have been shambolic. In 1991 and 1995 they entered the tournament with caretaker coaches (their predecessors having been ignominiously sacked) such was the state of the game in Wales.

But times have changed. Their preparation for this year's competition could not have been better.

The group is gruelling, rather than classy, but it will be hard, of that there is no doubt.

Japan, with their All Black influence, cannot be ignored, while Manu Samoa and Argentina are both teams who will punish those who underrate them.

Henry will be happy with his position as coach, however. After a hectic Five Nations and summer schedule, he has few injury worries (bar a slight groin strain to Scott Quinnell), and credit goes to the excellent work of his conditioning coach, Steve Black.

Lack of depth

The Welsh weakness undoubtedly lies beyond their 1st XV. Wales have a very good 21-22-man squad, but they don't have the quality in their second tier of the southern hemisphere side, or even England for that matter.

Nevertheless, players seem to be flocking to Wales like never before as the continuing saga over Jason-Jones Hughes makes evident.

He's a fantastic prospect for the national side. He's big (6 feet four) but he's up against some tough competition for the centre berth and he's not quite the absolute flier Wales are looking for.


[ image: Neil Jenkins:The complete fly-half, but there are concerns in other areas of the squad]
Neil Jenkins:The complete fly-half, but there are concerns in other areas of the squad
Yes, the Welsh weakness lies in the lack of the depth in their squad. Still, I hear you say, it can't be all bad if a player of the quality of Allan Bateman is on the bench. And quite right too!

It was easy for Henry when he first arrived, but now there is this expectation - and his whole game with the press (he is cunning you know), is simply to grapple with that.

As he says, and he's right, we need to keep our feet on the ground.

Henry has been a guiding light for the Welsh players. He's radically changed their mentality and quite simply, it is a testament to his ability as a quality coach.

He's done it, not by luck, but by good selection (he found Peter Rogers and Shane Howarth), good man-management (he's brought the Quinnells back into the fold and made sure they are fully committed) and kept old hands like Garin Jenkins and Scott Gibbs involved.

His masterstroke, however, has been Neil Jenkins. He's given him confidence and instead of listening to what other think he can't do, he's said "show we what you can".

The result is that Jenkins has bloomed, and so much so that he's likely to be Henry's playmaker for the considerable future.

His distribution is now so good teams have to play flatter against him - which leaves him the odd chance to go on his own, of course.

Henry will be hoping to get to the quarter-finals with as few injuries as possible. That will be the key for Wales. If they find themselves against Australia with five or six injuries it will be very difficult.

There is a burden of expectation on their shoulders and that's uncharted territory for them and could also prove a problem.

They are, indeed, a mystery. But the greater the mystery so far, the better Henry has handled it.



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