Priestland key to Welsh Success Posted almost 12 years ago

Rhys Priestland started playing at outside-half for Wales only last August, and then by accident. He had been picked at full-back against England at Twickenham in a pre-World Cup friendly, only to be told a few minutes for the start that he would be wearing the 10 jersey because Stephen Jones had suffered a calf injury in the warm-up.

Little more than a month later, Priestland was not only established at outside-half but he had become Wales’s catalyst, sparking a team that had been functional for more than a year and lateral behind.

Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, had for more than three years vacillated between James Hook and Stephen Jones at outside-half, as if wanting an amalgam of the two, the light-footedness and scheming of Hook and the control of Jones.

Priestland is not an amalgam of the two: he is as tall as Hook at 6ft but he is not as sinuous. He has Jones’s appetite in defence, but is more of a threat with the ball in hand. Speed is his weapon, but not in terms of pace.

Priestland is quick to make up his mind, weighing up his options so that by the time he receives the ball he knows what he is going to do. Scanning is the modern coaching parlance for a player seeing what is in front of him, and by giving his outside backs an extra half-second, a centre like Jamie Roberts was able to recapture the form he had shown with the Lions in South Africa in 2009.

A few weeks before Wales went to Twickenham last August, Gatland mused privately about who Wales would pick at outside-half in the World Cup. He had been impressed with Priestland’s composure in training and in the camps in Poland and mused aloud about giving him the 10 jersey.

Gatland’s hand was forced by Jones’s injury, but Priestland would have had his chance in the return against the following week or when Argentina visited Cardiff later in the month. Gatland’s instincts have served him well in recent years and Priestland became one of the successes of the World Cup.

His contribution was all the more notable in the semi-final and play-off he missed. Wales became lateral again and a reason to be fearful for the men in red ahead of the Six Nations was the knee injury Priestland sustained playing for the Scarlets in the Heineken Cup a few weeks before the start of the tournament.

He only proved his fitness a couple of days before Wales’s opening game against Ireland in Dublin, and while his goal-kicking was awry, he created an early try and mixed his game adroitly, as he did against Scotland the following week.

Twickenham marked the end of his upward curve. England got at him, often cutting out his midfield options. From knowing what he was going to do before he received the ball, Priestland had to make decisions on the hoof.

He was caught in possession in dangerous areas in his own half, hurried into kicks and made passes which left the receiver with nowhere to go. His nadir came five minutes into the second-half when his clearance near his own line was charged down by Mouritz Botha and Priestland only prevented a try by standing a few metes off-side.

He was sent to the sin-bin and had only just returned to the field when he was caught in possession again and conceded a penalty. Owen Farrell missed it and as Gatland pondered whether to bring on Jones for the final 20 minutes, Priestland slowly picked himself up and saw out the match.

He has not been made available to reporters in the two weeks since even though he is someone with an equable temperament. Italy on Saturday is perhaps his biggest game for Wales to date and the Azzurri will not have missed how England got to him.

Barry John had poor days, as in the 1970 Five Nations when Wales were beaten 14-0 by Ireland in Dublin, but he always backed himself. Priestland will be a better player for Twickenham, and given the three-Test tour to Australia in the UK summer and a demanding autumn series of internationals, Wales will need him at his calculating best.

The grand slam awaits before then. Italy will be a speed bump but France in Cardiff have too often in the last 30 years taken Wales up a cul-de-sac. Their four matches in as many weeks, together with a six-day turnaround after England on Sunday, give Wales an advantage.

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Paul Rees was born in Cardiff and has been a full-time writer on rugby union since 1986, first for the South Wales Echo, then Wales and Sunday and, from 2001, the Guardian and the Observer, having contributed to the former on a freelance basis since 1988. He has covered every World Cup since 1991 and five Lions tours. When time allows, he also write on cricket, mainly Glamorgan. And away from work, he a season-ticket holder at Arsenal, watching them home and away, including the European Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris in 2006.

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