I SPENT THREE seasons playing rugby in Japan, so I’d like to think I know a little bit about the country and how the game is played there. It is, of course, certainly very different to what we’re used to.
I’ve read a lot of comments about the conditions and how they will impact the World Cup. Now most of the teams – including Wales – have landed in Japan the anticipation for the tournament has really gone up a notch. The countdown is now in single digits.
There seems to be a growing belief that whatever weather hits the games in Japan – and it could be anything – teams might be better off playing risk-free rugby. I’ve read a few articles saying the best way for success would be to squeeze the opposition and force them into making the mistakes.
I would urge Wales not to fall into this trap. It’s dangerous.
In my three seasons with the Mitsubishi Dynaboars I played in 35 degree heat, pouring rain, typhoon-like winds and even snow in October. That was one to forget!
Japan will organise an absolutely amazing World Cup off the field, but what will be interesting about the action on the field will be the impact of the conditions. No two games will be the same.
My view is that will make it very hard to compare teams both from the same Pool and across the group stages. That should make the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final very interesting.
The point I make about Wales not falling into the trap of playing risk- free rugby applies to all teams, but especially Warren Gatland’s boys.
We all know that Wales have had a lot of success in the last 18 months. They’ve gone 14 matches unbeaten, reached No.1 in the rankings for the first time, and won a Six Nations Grand Slam.
Throughout that time they have often won games by being the side with less possession. They have blitzed teams to death with their famous defence masterminded by Shaun Edwards and they have taken the points and scored some nice tries when it has mattered without ever really cutting loose.
I’m sure there will be a temptation to see tricky handling conditions in Japan and opt for that sort of game plan, particularly with Dan Biggar at fly-half who is a supreme tactical kicker. Dan is also a fine competitor and very strong in defence too.
He will undoubtedly thrive on the big stage again as he did in 2015, but to win the World Cup Wales can’t be a one trick money. The approach I mention above will probably be enough to get you out of your Pool. It might even be enough to win you a quarter-final, but I doubt it will be what’s required to lift the Webb Ellis Cup. You have to have more than one string to your bow to do that.
Wales have that in their locker. I’m not saying we’ll see them chuck the ball everywhere in Japan because I don’t think that’s their style, but balance is the key.
Knowing when to put boot to ball and when to attack is a priceless asset which is what makes Hadleigh Parkes at inside-centre such a vital operator. He always seems to pick the right option.
If he does that the likes of Jonathan Davies, George North and Liam Williams outside him can be unleashed. Providing Wales get parity up front – which I expect them to – the opening match with Georgia on September 23 has the potential to be a very, very useful run out.
We all know the Georgian threat is up front and at the scrum. Wales should have enough to deal with that because we all know Warren is set to name a strong side.
I’ve had a few worries about the Welsh scrum in the four summer warm-up games, but I thought it was much, much better in Dublin for the final match with Ireland.
Wyn Jones started at loosehead at the Aviva Stadium and I think he deserves to keep hold of the No.1 jersey for the Georgia match. I thought he was excellent. His scrum work was rock solid and we know that is his main strength, but he also worked well at the line-out and contributed noticeably in the loose and at the breakdown. He is far more than just a strong set-piece workhorse.
I must admit I’m still a bit perplexed why Rob Evans didn’t make the final 31 for Japan. Warren said it was down to durability, but I’ve a funny feeling there might be more to him missing out than meets the eye. I might be barking up the wrong tree, but time will tell.
With Rob missing I don’t think there is much to split the three looseheads of Wyn, Nicky Smith and Rhys Carre. For me Wyn starts against Georgia to negate their scrum threat.
With the likes of Ken Owens and Alun Wyn Jones in the pack I can’t see Wales being bullied by Georgia who have been beaten twice by Scotland in recent warm-up games. That certainly bodes well for Welsh supporters.
I think the rest of the side pretty much picks itself with Ken and Tomas Francis completing the front row. I’ve been impressed by Jake Ball recently and I’d have him alongside Alun Wyn at lock. It’s a similar situation in the back row where I’d keep Aaron Wainwright chomping at the bit in reserve to Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty.
I’ve seen a few people doubting Justin. What planet are they on? The guy is an unreal rugby player and one of the first names on the team sheet these days. In addition to everything he brings around the field I’ve noticed Justin is being used more and more as a line-out option. That’s why he has to start and Aaron can come on and empty the tank when needed.
My backs to face Georgia are Gareth Davies, Biggar, Josh Adams, Parkes, Davies, North and Liam Williams. There is a good argument to say Tomos Williams should start at scrum-half after a good game in Dublin, but let’s ease him into this World Cup as a young player. Gareth has plenty of experience of bossing big games and did very well in 2015.
That Georgia game will come around very quickly and I hope Wales can acclimatise to conditions pretty quickly. They have to. Warren and the boys are training down in Kitakyushu where the people have gone mad for Wales thanks to a legacy programme implemented there by the Welsh Rugby Union. Whoever came up with that idea needs a pay rise, it’s genius!
I’m sure most Welsh fans have seen the Twitter videos of people there singing the Welsh national anthem and with the famous dragon on the flag plastered all over the place. It’s just brilliant.
That’s Japan for you. Whatever they do, they put absolutely everything into it. The World Cup brings a lot of pressure, but I’d urge the Wales boys to try and see some of the country when they get the chance. It’s a remarkable place and the players are very lucky to be able to visit there.
Embracing the culture around you is fundamental to life in Japan and I know that from my own experiences. I’ve tried everything over the years – karaoke, sumo wrestling, you name it!
I can’t wait to get over to Japan this week and for the action to start. Come on Wales!
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