World Cup omens haunt Warren Gatland's Wales

By Gareth RobertsBBC Sport Wales
Gavin Henson is tackled by rival Barbarians centre Seru Rabeni on his Wales return
Gavin Henson is tackled by Barbarians' Fijian centre Seru Rabeni on his Wales return

If Wales' players believe in omens, their 31-28 defeat by the Barbarians may strike fresh fear into their hearts as they compete for places in the 30-man squad that will head to New Zealand for the World Cup in the autumn.

Wales face Fiji and Samoa at that tournament, Pacific Islands nations with a history of upsetting the men in red and delighting neutral fans around the world in the process.

Samoa beat Wales in 1991 and 1999 and Fiji did likewise four years ago in France. And just to underline the danger posed to Warren Gatland's squad, Islanders scored three of the Baa-Baas four tries against Wales at the Millennium Stadium.

Fijian Isa Nacewa has yet to declare whether or not he will seek to add a second cap to his sole Test appearance in their 22-20 2003 World Cup defeat by Scotland in Australia.

But the mere fact that a Fijian scored the winning try with the last move of the game for the Baa-Baas in a World Cup warm-up match has some worrying echoes for Gatland and his players given the manner in which Wales succumbed to Fiji in Nantes in 2007.

Then Wales opted for a thrilling, attacking approach and it played into Fiji's grateful hands. Against the Barbarians in 2011, Wales opted for a thrilling, attacking approach and it played into a Fijian's grateful hands. Twice.

Samoa's Iosefa Tekori and once-capped Fijian Nacewa celebrate
Samoa's Iosefa Tekori and once-capped Fijian Isa Nacewa celebrate in Cardiff

Against Samoa in 1991 a Wales team short of confidence was simply out-played, but in 1999 guess what?

The team captained by current Wales attack coach Robert Howley and with current kicking coach Neil Jenkins at fly-half ignored their dominance up front - in which the Baa-Baas coach Dai Young played a part - and deployed an attacking approach that played into Samoa's hands.

Towering Baa-Baas lock Iosefa Tekori's hands were also rather grateful when a scoring pass came his way in Cardiff on Saturday and he underlined the athletic threat Samoa will pose by simply being on the end of a counter-attack that began at a line-out near half-way.

Another islander, Fiji's powerful centre Seru Rabeni, scored one of his side's four tries in 2007. The fact that Wales entertained the world by scoring five meant little as they bowed out of the tournament at the final whistle of that pool game.

What followed should also grab Gatland's attention. His predecessor, Gareth Jenkins, was sacked almost on the spot.

There again, perhaps those factors have already been noted by Gatland. After all, Wales are hardly renowned for playing with smooth, free-flowing abandon under the New Zealander.

Despite all the criticism that has been aimed at Wales' tactics and approach since winning the 2008 Grand Slam, when the World Cup comes around, tactics that pay no homage to flamboyance will prove rather more useful than in past tournaments.

And if it is of any significance, Wales are also likely to have a player who can fight islander fire with a Newport Gwent Dragon twist - Tangaki Taulupe Faletau, or Toby as he his better known to the rugby fraternity in which he has made his name.

In the build-up to his debut cap, fellow Dragon and Wales back-row colleague Danny Lydiate described Faletau as an "archetypal, quiet and gentle giant made entirely of ice... although of course he is not so gentle around the field".

So it proved as Faletau belied his tender 20 years to make a big impression with his dynamic ball-carrying and hunger for defensive duties, while going head-to-head with Italian talisman and, yet again, man-of-the-match, Sergio Parisse.

Samoa's Semo Sititi celebrates their 1999 World Cup win over Wales in Cardiff
Samoa's Semo Sititi celebrates their 1999 World Cup win over Wales in Cardiff

There can be no doubting that Gavin Henson was the most talked-about man before the match and while he was left "disappointed" with his own performance, one moment summed up why Gatland hopes the centre can truly come good again for the World Cup.

Wales have been desperate for a midfield player with enough creative vision and skill to spot a chance and help ensure it's taken since Henson was last in his pomp.

The miss-pass that sent George North over early on must have prompted Gatland and Howley to produce some synchronised sighing in relief.

Henson could yet prove to be the missing link who can give Wales an edge in the games against Fiji and Samoa in New Zealand.

He may even prove inspirational in the opening clash against South Africa on Sunday, 11 September in Wellington.

But win or lose against the Springboks, the games against Fiji and Samoa - and Namibia - will define Gatland's reign thus far.

Come unstuck on any of those occasions and the omens of a June day in Cardiff will become Welsh rugby's demons Down Under.