WALES v SAMOA (Tomorrow, KO 7.30)
WALES caretaker head coach Robert Howley makes some good calls for tomorrow’s must-win clash with Samoa but other selections may yet come back to haunt him.
This coaching set-up has always, and often not entirely convincingly, uttered the mantra that they always pick on form.
When it came to their out of sorts captain Sam Warburton, that wasn’t the case ahead of last week’s 26-12 upset at the hands of Argentina.
The openside flanker also didn’t have a good tour of Australia when his side were whitewashed 3-0 by the Wallabies in the Test series and he was poor against Los Pumas.
Warburton’s stock was sky high after Wales won the Grand Slam in March on the back of a successful World Cup campaign which saw them go agonisingly close to a showdown in the final with New Zealand.
In the spring, everyone wanted the man of the moment as their Lions captain for their tour of Australia next summer.
If a week is a long time in politics, as former prime minister Harold Wilson once famously quipped, then eight months in sport is an eternity.
Warburton hasn’t been the same player since he was controversially sent off by Alain Rolland after just 17 minutes for a tip tackle on Vincent Clerc in Wales’ 9-8 defeat to France in the semi-final of the World Cup last autumn.
He captained Wales during the 2012 Grand Slam success but, apart from an excellent game against England at Twickenham, wasn’t at his best.
That wasn’t really his fault however because he missed half of Wales’ Six Nations clean sweep with a series of injuries.
A dead leg forced him off at the interval against Ireland which kept him out of the Scotland game, while he missed the Italy match with a shoulder problem which consequently meant he could only play half of the Grand Slam clash against France because it flared up again.
And it is his constant problems with serious bumps that could be the root cause of his sharp decline in recent months.
The incredibly talented 24-year-old was once the man to make Wales tick, but is it his sheer commitment to the cause that might ultimately have led to his struggle with form as he battles to shrug off the knocks and be completely match fit?
Wales are lucky to have a player of the quality of Justin Tipuric to come in for him, the openside in great form for the past year or so.
It’s the first time the Ospreys man has been picked at No 7 purely on form and not because of a Warburton injury, the nation hoping he can prove tomorrow, without any doubt, he is in the side on merit.
Another player who is in the starting XV because of his excellence and consistency is Ryan Jones, who overcomes the shoulder injury which kept him out of the Argentina match that may not have turned into the debacle it did for Wales had he been fit. Not only does he get the nod at blindside but the 2008 Grand Slam skipper will captain Wales for a record-breaking 29th time – a great achievement for the 31-year-old who is a superb servant.
Howley has also finally given Dan Biggar a chance at outside half, the Osprey should have been given the No 10 jersey in Australia as the form fly half.
But the coach should have gone one step further than just dropping another player hardly in the form of his life in Rhys Priestland. The Scarlets fly half is still on the bench but there is no place for James Hook, playing well in his favoured fly half position at Perpignan.
Hook’s Top 14 teammate Luke Charteris is another man who might be considered hard done by, but at least the lock is on the bench. Bradley Davies comes in for Alun Wyn Jones who misses the rest of the autumn Tests with a shoulder injury.
Influential centre Jonathan Davies is still absent with his groin injury, Ashley Beck comes in at No 13 at the expense of Scott Williams, while Jamie Roberts shakes off last weekend’s “mild concussion” to partner him.
The hosts are red hot favourites to win tomorrow at 1-5 with some bookies offering 4-1 on Samoa.
Wales should win, but when did we hear that one before?
WALES: L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), A Beck (Ospreys), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), G North (Scarlets); D Biggar (Ospreys), M Phillips (Bayonne); P James (Bath), R Hibbard (Ospreys), A Jarvis (Ospreys), B Davies (Cardiff Blues), I Evans (Ospreys), R Jones (Ospreys, capt), J Tipuric (Ospreys), T Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons).
Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets), G Jenkins (Toulon), S Andrews (Cardiff Blues), L Charteris (Perpignan), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues), T Knoyle (Scarlets), R Priestland (Scarlets), S Williams (Scarlets).
SAMOA: F Autagavaia (Northland), P Perez (Eastern Province), G Pisi (Northampton), P Williams (Stade Francais), D Lemi (Worcester, captain), T Pisi (Suntory), K Fotuali'i (Ospreys); S Taulafo (Wasps), O Avei (Bordeaux-Begles), C Johnston (Toulouse); D Leo (Perpignan), T Paulo (North Harbour); O Treviranus (London Irish), M Fa'asavalu (Harlequins), T Tuifua (Newcastle).
Replacements: T Paulo (Clermont Auvergne), V Afatia (Agen), J Johnston (Harlequins), TBA, T Fomai (Hawke's Bay), J Su'a (Tasman), J Leota (Sale), R Lilomaiava (Laulii).