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JACKSON COLUMN: Wales striking a blow for the RaboDirect PRO12

Guinness PRO12 Editor

12 Oct 2011


When they line up for the semi-finals of the World Cup this weekend, one fact will stand whatever the outcome. There will be 23 more players from the RaboDirect PRO12 as there will from the English Premiership.

The 30-man Wales squad preparing for the game of their lives against France at Eden Park is drawn entirely from the four Welsh regions with five exceptions. Mike Phillips, James Hook and Lee Byrne are bound for Bayonne, Perpignan and Clermont Auvergne respectively which leaves Andy Powell and Craig Mitchell as the last men standing, the only English club players left.

Wales’ spectacular success as the team of the tournament hitherto and England’s early exit have conspired to produce a scoreline which strikes a mighty blow for the Celtic League in its new guise – RaboDirect PRO12 25, Aviva Premiership 2. Of the three fully professional European Leagues, only the French Top 14 can claim a larger representation going into the last four of the most open World Cup of all.

How it goes down in history will be determined by Sunday week but Wales and Ireland will deserve special mention, come what may. Ireland’s dismantling of the Australian pack during the second week turned the whole tournament upside down and inside out, forcing the Wallabies to take a tougher alternative route and guaranteeing a North-South final.

In the best of all emerald worlds, the Irish would still be here. A semi-final was the least that four of their all-time greats deserved – Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, a quartet with almost 400 caps between them. As they know only too well, professional sport at the highest level doesn’t believe in fairytales.

Once Wales had completed the 153rd and last of their scything tackles in cutting them down to size, Ireland had nowhere to go but home. For O’Driscoll, the bravest of the brave based on his heroics over the last twelve years, England in 2015 will be a World Cup too far.

As gracious as ever in defeat, Ireland’s magnificent captain congratulated the Welsh and made a point of giving his opposite number, Jonathan Davies, a souvenir which the Scarlets centre will treasure for the rest of his days. Davies was eleven years old when O’Driscoll played his first Test match in 1999.

"Brian O’Driscoll is a player I admired greatly when I was growing up," Davies said. "I am still over the moon to have been given his shirt. He came over at the end and congratulated me. He was very gracious and that’s something I won’t forget."

When it comes to picking the best young players of the World Cup, Wales will have more contenders than anyone else. Davies, George North, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau, Leigh Halfpenny, Scott Williams, Tavis Knoyle, Lloyd Williams and Ryan Bevington are all 23 or under.

According to one of the more senior players, their advent has had a rejuvenating effect on the older ones. Adam Jones, at 30 the third oldest member of the squad after fellow prop Gethin Jenkins and the ageless Shane Williams, speaks from personal experience.

"Hardly any of the boys drink," he said. "None of the younger ones drink which is a big thing. So it made us think: ‘We’d better not drink either.’ Most of the boys would like a pint but, hopefully, we’ll save it until after the final.

"These young boys are so fit and so professional that people like myself have to keep up with them otherwise we’d fall by the wayside. In the dressing-room after the Irish match, all the young ones were dancing about. All the older ones were pretty knackered."

When Wales offered Warburton the captaincy after Matthew Rees had been forced to relinquish the position pending neck surgery, the Blues flanker thought long and hard about how the old players would respond to being led by a player who was then just 22.

Jones, the immovable tighthead, was one of those uppermost in his mind.

"The good thing about Sam is that he’s not a ranter," Jones said. "He doesn’t speak for the sake of it, doesn’t say a lot but what he does say makes sense. It’s very much a case of ‘follow me’ and when you’ve got someone as fantastic as Sam, you make sure you follow him."

When France beat Wales 28-9 in Paris at the end of the Six Nations last March, the night began badly with Warburton forced off after 16 minutes because of injury. Without him, it rapidly got worse. On Saturday, nobody will be more crucial to the cause than the skipper.