Wales use experience to focus firmly on Georgian threat

Welsh have a proven track record of overcoming off-field distractions but opponents ran them close in Cardiff two years ago.

TOYOTA, 22 Sep - A preview of the Pool D game between Wales and Georgia, which kicks off at 19:15 on Monday, 23 September at City of Toyota Stadium.

The Big Picture

Wales have become accustomed to off-the-field problems disrupting their build-up to major tournaments and Rugby World Cup 2019 is no different.

Warren Gatland's squad had hardly got their bearings at their training base in Kitakyushu last week before a key member of the backroom staff was heading home.

Attack coach Rob Howley, who had been part of the set-up since Gatland took over as head coach way back in 2007, is facing an investigation into a breach of World Rugby regulations.

But the players have been drawing on their experience of previous distracting events - notably injuries and late changes of coach - to ensure they have the blinkers firmly in place as they face an improving Georgia team on Monday.

In March, as Wales prepared for a game against Scotland in the Six Nations, all the talk was of a proposed merger between two of the four regions, Ospreys and Scarlets, which put players' contracts in jeopardy.

Wales shrugged off the controversy to win the game in Edinburgh 18-11, and a week later claimed their third Grand Slam under Gatland, who leaves his post at the end of this tournament.

"In a way, you look back and that Scotland week was almost like a trial run, wasn't it?" said captain Alun Wyn Jones, who will equal the Wales cap record of 129 against Georgia.

"Irrelevant of the week, we are chomping at the bit anyway. As players, we do feel as though we are being held in the blocks a bit. You don't want to be ready too soon, but we do feel as though we are ready and waiting to get out there."

With new backs coach Stephen Jones already making his mark, Wales will still want to launch their campaign with a performance to show why they are one of the tournament favourites.

Wales took over the world No.1 spot for the first time in their history last month after a warm-up victory over England, when Eddie Jones's side failed to cross the try line. If Wales are to challenge for the trophy, that defensive strength is likely to be the foundation.

Defence has long-been Georgia's main strength, particularly in the scrum, and their forwards coach Graham Rowntree, the former England and British Lions prop, will surely have come up with a plan to make it as difficult for Wales as possible.

In their last 19 games, Georgia have restricted opponents to 10 points or fewer in 53 per cent of them. Their attacking options are limited, though Gatland has singled out their young outside-half, Tedo Abzhandadze, for praise.

"They rely a lot on that scrum in terms of forming a foundation, but they've got a pretty exciting young 10. When they get into your 22, they're pretty clinical in the way they go about their business," Gatland said.

"The game in Georgia has gained a huge amount of popularity over a number of years with some of their results and success. They've just got better and better and their world ranking (No.12) reflects that."

 

Georgia coach Milton Haig agreed with his fellow New Zealander's assessment, and with Gatland's decision to field his strongest side.

"They understand last time we met them in Cardiff it was 13-6 (to Wales) and we built some credibility in that match," he said.

"So, instead of looking at it as a disadvantage, I think it's something we can talk to our boys about and actually use to say: 'Look how serious these boys are taking us', and that's got to be good for us."

Form guide (most recent matches first)

Wales: LLWLW

Georgia: LLWWW

Head-to-Head

Played 1 - Wales 1W

In the spotlight:

Wales flanker Aaron Wainwright may have made just 12 appearances since switching from football to rugby, but he is already being likened to former Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton.

Wainwright, who turns 22 on Wednesday (25 September), has earned selection ahead of Richard Moriarty and the back row is an area where Wales have strength in depth.

Georgia have scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze, above, in their ranks - an improved and matured version of the man who, in 2015, became the youngest player to feature at a Rugby World Cup, at the age of 18 years and 340 days. Their backs seem to be catching up with the effectiveness of the forwards and Abzhandadze is one of the players to watch.

Team News

Wales will field four players who were in the starting lineup for the quarter-final defeat by South Africa at RWC 2015: Alun Wyn Jones, Gareth Davies, Dan Biggar and George North.

Skipper Alun Wyn Jones will equal the Welsh record of 129 caps, in his fourth RWC, but he is just one of two fit locks, with Adam Beard and Cory Hill unavailable as they return to fitness.

Georgia will be without captain Merab Sharikadze, who is still recovering from injury, and loose-head prop Mikheil Nariashvili will lead the side.

Coach Milton Haig (NZL) has handed six players their World Cup debuts, including exciting outside-half Abzhandadze.

Stats & Trivia

Wales will field their oldest starting 15 at a RWC - an average age of 28 years 331 days.

Centre David Kacharava scored a try in Georgia's 30-0 win against Namibia at RWC 2007 - the Lelos' first victory at a RWC.

Quotes

"He's got better with age, he's like a good wine. But he doesn't like me talking about these sorts of things." Wales head coach Warren Gatland on record-equalling - but modest - captain Alun Wyn Jones, above.

"In 2015, I said if we didn't come to 2019 with a bit more 'X factor' that I would shoot myself, and thankfully I don't have to do that. I think we've got a little bit more young blood that can actually use the ball a bit better and step a bit better, and that's why they are in the team." Georgia coach Milton Haig.

RNS ig/pr/ns