Preview: Wales v Georgia
WORLD CUP POOL MATCH: Six Nations champions Wales will seek to put betting allegations around assistant coach Rob Howley behind them and focus on staking out their credentials when they take on Georgia on Monday.
Stephen Jones, the former Wales flyhalf and skipper, has flown in as the new attack coach to replace long-term incumbent Howley, who was sent home to face an investigation into alleged gambling infringements.
It is an unwanted development for a team touted as genuine title contenders under the canny eye of head coach Warren Gatland.
With Australia beating Fiji 39-21 in Pool D’s opening match, Gatland named his strongest side for the clash against the Georgians, who have won just four of their 16 games in the last four World Cups.
“We are never short of a little bit of adversity in Welsh rugby or a story breaking in a match week,” Wales hooker Ken Owens said, adding the Howley affair had come as a “shell shock”.
“The boys have just responded perfectly. We’ve just had to get on with it and use it as a galvanising force.”
Veteran lock Alun Wyn Jones will equal the Wales record for Test appearances of 129 held by prop Gethin Jenkins and play his fourth World Cup after he was named to lead the team.
It will be the oldest Welsh starting side at any World Cup, with an average age of 28 years, 331 days – 80 days more per man than the team that played Japan at the 2007 edition.
Wales will start with 10 of the team that lost 19-10 to Ireland in their final warm-up, with Dan Biggar at flyhalf and Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies lining up in midfield for the 11th time in the past two years.
“We’ve been out here just over a week and, not having a game yet, we just can’t wait to get started,” said back row forward Justin Tipuric.
Georgia defensive coach Levan Maisashvili insisted he did not believe Howley’s absence would affect Wales, who were briefly World Rugby’s No.1 ranked team before Ireland took the mantle.
“The Welsh team are a high-quality team. All of the players are professionals, so I don’t think it will be a reason for them to play poorly,” he said.
“Obviously, for the Welsh team it is not good and will add some pressure, but they are all professional players.”
Coach Milton Haig said he had been pleased with Georgia’s run-in to the tournament, which has included long periods of acclimatisation to heat and humidity, notably in Turkey.
“We’ve prepped pretty well,” said the Kiwi, who named Mamuka Gorgodze at openside flank on his return to rugby at the age of 35 after two years in retirement.
“We’ve had a good build-up to the World Cup with three warm-up matches, two against Scotland, so we’ve learned a lot out of that.
“And with another Six Nations team coming up as our first game, against Wales, it’s prepared us really well.”
Players to watch
For Wales: The spotlight will shine brightest on captain Alun Wyn Jones, as he equals Gethin Jenkins’ Wales cap record. Jones, 34, will win his 129th Wales Test cap. Flank Aaron Wainwright and prop Wyn Jones start ahead of Ross Moriarty and Nicky Smith. Josh Navidi is named at No.8, with Justin Tipuric completing an impressive back row.
For Georgia: There are a number of players who ply their trade in Europe, but it is the selection of Mamuka Gorgodze at openside flank that will raise the eyebrows, after he was brought out of retirement at the age of 35. Other forwards worth keeping an eye on are No.8 Beka Gorgadze (Bordeaux-Begles), lock Kote Mikautadze (Montpellier) and prop Mikheil Nariashvili (Montpellier). In the backs, the Brive-based halfback pairing of Tedo Abzhandadze (flyhalf) and Vasil Lobzhanidze (scrumhalf) are worth keeping an eye on.
2017: Wales won 13-6, Cardiff
Prediction: Most bookmakers are giving Wales a handicap of between 24 and 28 points. That is perhaps where the money is going, but we feel Wales will win by more than 30 points.
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Josh Navidi, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Aaron Wainwright, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Wyn Jones.
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Aaron Shingler, Ross 20 Moriarty, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 Rhys Patchell, 23 Leigh Halfpenny.
Georgia: 15 Soso Matiashvili, 14 Mirian Modebadze, 13 Davit Kacharava, 12 Tamaz Mchedlidze, 11 Giorgi Kveseladze, 10 Tedo Abzhandadze, 9 Vasil Lobzhanidze, 8 Beka Gorgadze, 7 Mamuka Gorgodze, 6 Giorgi Tkhilaishvili, 5 Kote Mikautadze, 4 Giorgi Nemsadze, 3 Beka Gigashvili, 2 Shalva Mamukashvili, 1 Mikheil Nariashvili (captain).
Replacements: 16 Jaba Bregvadze, 17 Guram Gogichashvili, 18 Levan Chilachava, 19 Shalva Sutiashvili, 20 Beka Saginadze, 21 Otar Giorgadze, 22 Gela Aprasidze, 23 Lasha Khmaladze.
Date: Monday, September 23
Venue: Aichi, City of Toyota
Kick-off: 19.15 (11.15 UK time; 10.15 GMT)
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Expected weather: Times of clouds and sun, with a couple of showers. High of 29°C and a low of 20°C
Assistant referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)