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Wales v Argentina: It's all to play for with seeding places at stake

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: November 09, 2012

  • George North in the recent promotional TV advert

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YOU can imagine Argentina's players staring wide-eyed at the TV screen in their hotel lounge, watching George North apparently carrying tree trunks while hurtling through a forest, Leigh Halfpenny racing a horse on a beach and Rhys Priestland appearing to hoof a rugby ball over a 92-ft high seven-arch viaduct.

The TV ads to promote Wales's autumn series also depict Dan Lydiate throwing tractor tyres uphill on a Caerphilly mountainside.

Shame the Dragon is injured and sitting out the next month. Perhaps he ought to change his training routine.

What the South Americans will make of it all is anyone's guess.

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They may shrug their shoulders, throw their hands in the air and say: "Una pinta de lo que esos chicos estan bebiendo?"

But "a pint of what those boys are drinking" only works if the nearest barman knows the tipples in question.

Or the Pumas might simply reason they have spent the past couple of months in the company of New Zealanders, South Africans and Australians capable of improbable feats, so it's no big deal to face Welshmen who have taken time out to lark about on TV.

Whatever, we are about to find out what kind of shape Wales are truly in.

Every year, they rev up for their autumn series like a brand new Lamborghini before ending it like a clapped out Mitt Romney.

They can't afford to surrender meekly in any games this time, not even against Australia and New Zealand, two of the big three from the southern hemisphere who haven't so much played rugby against Wales over the years as terrorised them.

Because World Cup seeding spots are at stake, with a side's placing in next month's IRB rankings determining which pot they will be in for the global bash in 2015.

The top four in the ratings will be kept apart in the pool stages at the event in England. At present, that would mean New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and the hosts dodging each other.

But France and Wales are that close to England they could easily overhaul them if results go their way.

Certainly, there are worse ideas than for Wales to avoid the Sanzar countries given how infrequently they beat them: just three times in the professional era, a stat that damns Welsh rugby as much as any other.

The national team can win as many Grand Slams as they want and the WRU can celebrate as much financial success as they like, but until wins over the southern hemisphere's best start arriving on a regular basis it all means only so much.

The games with the Wallabies and All Blacks in the coming weeks will be particularly important because they are above Wales on the IRB list and so there are extra ranking points on offer.

But first there is the little matter of Argentina.

It is a significant game, one that will decide whether Wales achieve momentum in this campaign, so there were eyebrows raised at the decision to leave out the Mike Phillips and hand the No. 9 jersey to Tavis Knoyle.

Some have called the move a gamble.

But Phillips didn't train in Spala last week because of club commitments and he will not be around for the match with Australia on December 1. He also didn't set the world alight in Australia in the summer, has been disciplined by Bayonne and failed to engage top form in recent weeks.

Short of setting Howley's house on fire and driving head on into Gatland's car, he couldn't have done much more to harm his selection prospects.

He is a good player, combative and afraid of nothing, but he can have no complaints about being dropped. Picking him at this point would have sent out the wrong signal. In a team sport, reputation counts for only so much.

For Knoyle it is a big opportunity, reward for his perseverance after a difficult year in which he was overtaken in the pecking order by Lloyd Williams and forced to undergo shoulder surgery which brought his 2011-12 campaign to a premature close.

At 6ft 1in and a powerful 14st 6lb he is physically equipped to come off best in a collision with a Smart car.

He has a jolting hand-off that can scatter defenders and he has also developed an eye for a gap during his time with the Scarlets.

We are about to find out whether he has the ability weigh up situations in the blink of an eye and make good decisions. If he has, it will be good news for the coaches because the scrum-half spot is starting to become a concern in Wales, with no-one standing out in the position this season.

Wales could also do with a big game from Rhys Priestland.

Gatland and Howley still have faith in him after his displays at the World Cup, when he was one of the fly-halves of the tournament, but he has performed patchily at Test level since, rarely hitting form, his confidence fragile.

Maybe he will only become vulnerable if the goal-kicking Leigh Halfpenny picks up an injury.

Howley will hope that doesn't happen and keep fingers crossed that Priestland can turn back the clock 13 months to the World Cup quarter-final against Ireland, when the Scarlet looked for all the world an elite player.

But before they even think about the Wales No. 10 the Pumas are bound to fix their attention on the man wearing the Welsh No. 3 jersey and examine whether Aaron Jarvis is up to the job of anchoring the home scrum.

If he shows any signs of weakness, the visitors will mercilessly pile on the pressure.

They memorably did exactly that against Wales in Llanelli in 1998 when they overran the home side at every set-piece.

"It was like having 100 head of cattle stampeding all over you — it was a huge eye-opener for everyone," said Jonathan Humphreys later.

Undoubtedly, the Pumas will have benefited from facing the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies in the Rugby Championship earlier this year.

Their backline is studded with class in the shape of Juan Martin Hernandez, Felipe Contepomi and scrum-half Martin Landajo, while forwards Ayerza and Juan Martin Lobbe would challenge for places in any side in the world.

Under Gatland, Wales have always maintained that a side stands to improve dramatically if given the chance to play the best on a regular basis.

If that maxim is true, they could have problems, because it is the Pumas who have been mixing it with world rugby's big beasts.

The absence of Adam Jones, Dan Lydiate, Ryan Jones and Jonathan Davies will test the much-lauded Welsh strength in depth, but Argentina are missing players, too.

Wales might just have enough quality to prevail, helped by home advantage.

But the visitors will be desperate to show how much they have pushed on.

On the field will be an aspiring doctor in Jamie Roberts against a qualified medic in Felipe Contepomi. Some would say that is just as well because someone is going to feel out of sorts at 4.30pm tomorrow.

Wales have to make sure it isn't them.

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