WALES v SAMOA - Big Match Preview
THE HEAT is well and truly on Wales caretaker coach Robert Howley and his besieged troops to secure a must-win victory over Samoa this evening.
The Pacific Islanders, famous nemeses at the World Cups of 1991 and 1999 when Wales were also playing at home, could prove to be the stuff of nightmares tonight.
The hosts may be smoking hot favourites to restore national pride, the bookies are giving punters short odds of 1-4 as opposed to a generous 7-2 on the Samoans.
But no one will be truly shocked if Samoa secure another famous upset in Cardiff – after all, they’ve got form.
Wales only lead the series of games between the two 5-3 since they won the first ever Test 32-14 in Apia in 1986. As well as those two World Cup catastrophes, Samoa’s third victory was a 34-9 mauling in 1994, again in Apia, against a Wales side that contained current kicking coach Neil Jenkins.
With Wales reeling from their abominable performance against Argentina, which saw them fortunate to only lose 26-12, they will be looking for some big performances from their big players.
The return of Ryan Jones on the blindside, and as captain, after he missed the calamity against Los Pumas with a shoulder injury, cannot be underestimated.
The contact area is an aspect of the game Samoa love and much is also expected of openside flanker Justin Tipuric who is given his big chance at the expense of out-of-form skipper Sam Warburton, demoted to the bench.
Dan Biggar has an opportunity to transform his fine regional form with the Ospreys onto a bigger stage after being handed the coveted No 10 jersey in place of Rhys Priestland who drops down to the replacements’ bench.
Wales fans will be hoping he will manage the jump to the big time better than in the past, having failed to do so in his limited opportunities so far.
Paul James’ time may also have come, in at loosehead instead of the veteran Gethin Jenkins.
Mike Phillips’ return, after he came on in the second half for Scarlets scrum half Tavis Knoyle, could also be crucial. The Bayonne man has been out of form for a while but he is a world class player who Wales will need to fire.
His inability to attend a pre-autumn Tests training camp in Poland because of club commitments was a factor in Knoyle starting ahead of him last week.
It was only the second time in 38 appearances since the 2008 Six Nations Championship that Phillips had not started for Wales.
And the combative 30-year-old, who will win his 70th cap after being put back in the driving seat, was yesterday showing the fighting spirit Wales will need if they are to win tonight.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t go to Poland, so preparation wasn’t great for me for last week’s game,” he said.
“I didn’t go to Poland, where a lot of work was done, so I guess maybe it (not being picked to start against Argentina) was a possibility. But whenever I wear the jersey, I am going to give absolutely everything. People know that.
“There is always pressure, but you have just got to play your role and give it everything.”
The 2008 and 2012 Grand Slam winner, who had a great World Cup last year when Wales reached the semi-finals, added: “I am an experienced player who has been in the Wales squad for a number of years now.
“I know the way in which we are going to play and I know the management team very well.”
Wales should have just enough to win.
To paraphrase Eminem, failure’s just not an option.
Defeat is almost unthinkable and would be devastating for Howley.