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Six Nations: Howley can hear the cavalry - but will it arrive too late?

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: February 05, 2013

  • Wales stand-in coach Rob Howley

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IT'S a bit late to save the Grand Slam or the Triple Crown, and the air is still thick with arrows of criticism and maybe even a few flying tomahawks as well, but at least the cavalry are coming over the hill.

Ryan Jones and Richard Hibbard are both deemed fit for the trip to Paris to face France on Saturday.

The hope will also be that Dan Lydiate and Alun Wyn Jones are not too far behind them, with speculation over when the two long-term casualties will be back certain to intensify after the game in the French capital.

For the time being, Rob Howley will just be relieved to have extra numbers at his disposal.

Jones has been sidelined by a dislocated thumb, while Hibbard has been troubled by the shoulder injury he originally hurt playing for Wales against Samoa on November 16, later aggravating in the Ospreys' home Heineken Cup encounter with Leicester.

The issue for the acting head coach is whether the pair are rushed straight into the line-up for the date with the French.

They have both been outstanding for their region this season, particularly in the Christmas derbies and the Heineken Cup, but neither player has been a first choice for Wales.

Even so, Howley and Robin McBryde are bound to be tempted to inject life into their pack by drafting in two players who have beaten Toulouse recently.

Jones has 70 caps worth of experience and a calming demeanour that allows him to live in the moment: no matter what has gone on before he appreciates the only thing that matters is the here and now.

For him, it is all about summoning a performance.

"How do I assess him? He brings a wealth of experience and technical know-how," said Shaun Edwards.

"He was outstanding last year coming off the bench in the Six Nations. Rugby is a 23-man game now and replacements are a huge part of the sport.

"When Ryan starts he can play in a variety of positions.

"He is an outstanding all-round rugby player."

Edwards's views on Hibbard were not sought, but the assumption would be that the defence coach doesn't exactly disapprove of the multiple big hits the hooker brings to every game, his unflinching courage and his dynamic ball-carrying.

There is no more exciting hooker in British and Irish rugby than the Osprey when he is fired up and ready to go.

Watching him play in the Heineken Cup you would deem it unfathomable that he could be overlooked by Wales when fit.

But then you look at the side that faced Ireland, with Paul James on the bench, Justin Tipuric alongside him and James Hook there as well, notwithstanding the lamentable passing in midfield, and it double underlines that nothing is guaranteed in Wales selection.

The spotlight will be on those who pick the side like never before for the game in Paris, amid increasing criticism of an overly conservative approach.

It is almost as if Warren Gatland is making the selection choices: Warburton at No. 7, an undercooked Gethin Jenkins in the front row, bashers in midfield, monsters out wide.

It worked last year.

But so did the old Fiat parked down the road from me.

Now it struggles to start in the mornings, needing a push when the temperature drops.

Coaching isn't just about drawing up game-plans.

It is also about knowing when to change and how much change to make. It was clear, too, that for all the effort Wales came up with in dragging themselves back into the game against Ireland, they lacked leadership.

That is why Ryan Jones's availability should be celebrated by the management.

And it is why Alun Wyn Jones should be reinstated as soon as he fit.

There might even be a temptation to consider Jones as captain later on in the tournament, thus leaving the battle for the No. 7 shirt to be decided solely on playing ability.

But no-one should bank on that happening.

Edwards, a warrior during his playing career, said it was critical senior people took responsibility at Stade de France.

"You look at all your experienced players with 30 or 40 caps and expect them to lead from the front," he said.

"Every player in modern rugby should be a leader in their own areas.

"You look to the lads who have played Test rugby in France before.

"We have to go out there and meet passion with passion."

That said, there is something in the old line about how one win can change a lot.

A victory over France would revive confidence, something Wales are bound to be short of after eight successive defeats, five of which have arrived at home.

"No-one remembers how you win the game," said centre Scott Williams.

"The issue is whether or not you won it.

"You don't ask how Chelsea won the Champions League.

''They won it and that's what mattered.

"We just need to get a win. It doesn't matter how we get it."

Wales could help themselves by starting promptly rather than waiting until the 45th minute before rousing themselves, as was the case against Ireland.

"Every single coach up and down the country for the past 100 years has stressed the importance of starting quickly," said Edwards.

"We spoke about it a lot last week, but a few big things went against us: a couple of scrum infringements — I am not challenging the referee's interpretations — and a couple of big turnovers that gave Ireland field position.

"All the top coaches will tell you that in a game of rugby the most important thing is field position, even more than possession.

"We need to get to France with our A game, get back to our A game for the full 80 minutes.

''If we do that, we have a chance."

Picking the right side wouldn't hurt, as well.

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  • sheryl_dobson  |  February 05 2013, 10:57PM

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