Friday, December 25, 2009

Gethin Jenkins takes over as Wales captain from injured Ryan Jones

Prop takes charge in crucial Cardiff Test against Australia.Gethin Jenkins will lead Wales against Australia after Ryan Jones failed to overcome a back strain suffered during weight training.

Gethin Jenkins will tomorrow become Wales's fourth captain this year after Ryan Jones pulled out of the side with a back strain sustained while weight training this week. The last time the Lions prop led his country was the match before Warren Gatland took over as head coach at the end of 2007 and he was overlooked when Jones missed two Six Nations matches this year; the armband went first to Martyn Williams and then to Alun Wyn Jones.

Jenkins's elevation is an indication of the importance that Wales, for all the talk of running rugby and providing a spectacle for spectators at the end of the international year, are placing on the scrum. As captain, he will be in regular contact with the referee, Wayne Barnes, and the set piece has become the second most contentious issue in the game after the ruck.

No one feared Australia's scrum a couple of years ago, but Wales, who have got away with playing Paul James out of position at tighthead this month, now rank it as the best in the world and an obstacle to a fourth win over Australia in the last five meetings in Cardiff. The Wallabies have become streetwise in the tight, as they showed at Twickenham when the prop Benn Robinson collapsed a scrum near England's line but won the penalty to give his side a lead they were not to lose, but they have fallen off in other areas and defeat tomorrow would be their eighth of the year, equalling the worst international campaigns, 1958 and 2005, in their 110-year history.

It is a day when the top six of the world rankings are in action against each other. Australia start the afternoon in third, but they will drop out of the top five for the first time if they lose to Wales by more than 15 points and results in Marseille and Dublin go the way of the Six Nations sides.

Robbie Deans, the Australia coach, has come under pressure after his side, which finished at the bottom of the Tri-Nations, lost to Scotland last week despite dominating possession. Their running instincts may run counter to the prevailing trend of kicking and chasing, but the average age of today's side is 24 and if the International Rugby Board finds some way of restoring the balance between attack and defence at the breakdown, the Wallabies will be well placed next year when the countdown to the 2011 World Cup will start ticking loudly.

Wales are upwardly mobile having recovered from the ignominy of failing to make the quarter-finals of the 2007 World Cup, but it will be a defining evening for them. Since winning the grand slam, they have lost to South Africa three times, New Zealand twice and France and Ireland once. Their only major victims in 2009 are England, hardly the scalp it used to be.

Robert Howley, the Wales attack coach, conceded that the ugliest of victories would do, never mind the concerns that professional rugby union is becoming unwatchable. So for all the mutual backslapping in the build-up that the two sides are the most creative and adventurous in their respective tournaments, the need for victory may curb any desire to finish the year on an aesthetic high.

Wales will miss Ryan Jones, who has rediscovered his best form this season. Andy Powell moves to No8, with Dan Lydiate, who is 22 next month, coming off the bench to take over at blindside flanker after winning his first cap as a replacement against Argentina last week. Two years ago this month, Lydiate feared he would never walk again after breaking his neck playing for Newport Gwent Dragons in Perpignan.

"Pulling on the Wales jersey is like putting on armour for battle," he said. "You almost feel like Superman." He will be up against the Australia captain, Rocky Elsom, regarded as a superhero by Leinster supporters last season and if Wales have the more prolific finishers, the Wallabies have the edge up front and in the back row. Wales talk about owning the sky and kicking is likely to prevail, but the day will surely come again when players are encouraged to reach for the sky, not just because that is where the ball will be coming from.

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