Tom Shanklin chats to Sport24

2016-11-25 10:20
Tom Shanklin (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Wales stalwart TOM SHANKLIN talks about the issues undermining Welsh and Springbok rugby and previews the Test at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday.

Sport24 asked: Ahead of their 32nd clash how would you assess the state of Welsh and SA rugby?

Tom Shanklin: The state of both nations’ rugby is pretty dismal at the moment. South Africa’s loss to Italy really took me by surprise because I didn’t expect the Springboks to be defeated by the 13-ranked team in world rugby. No offence to Italy but you’ve got to be in pretty dire straits to lose to them. After the shock defeat to Italy, more people are now taking note of the poor state SA rugby currently finds itself in. I’m aware that there are political issues behind some of the Springboks’ struggles and they are effectively not allowed to pick their best team. However, I also understand the reasons for transformation because they are looking to inspire young black children to become rugby players. The Springboks still possess some great players but they offer individual rather than team threats. Meanwhile, it’s worrying times for Wales because there is zero confidence going around and a massive lack of self-belief. Rob Howley is filling in as head coach owing to Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions commitments. While Howley is under huge pressure, I don’t believe that his job is in the balance. However, unlike South Africa, who have had a high turnover of playing personnel, a real point of concern is that this is predominantly the same Welsh team that reached a Rugby World Cup semi-final, claimed Six Nations titles and enjoyed Grand Slam success. When Gatland took over at national level in 2007, Wales enjoyed early success by employing a pragmatic approach and by playing low-risk rugby. However, the problem is that the oval-shaped game has since evolved and Wales have not. If it means that Wales have to go through a bad period in order to transition to a wide, attacking game then so be it because I believe that something needs to change.

Sport24 asked: In terms of playing style can we draw similarities between Wales and South Africa?

Tom Shanklin: Yes, the South Africans are much like the Welsh in that they will test teams physically but not mentally. The crash-ball, gain-line game plan which both teams employ is limited and one-dimensional. In terms of the home side, there is a lack of flair and I feel the forwards aren’t that comfortable with ball in hand. Meanwhile, when it comes to the backline, I believe Wales require two ball-players in order to advance their attack. I would like to see Wales move defences, offload more and run at arms rather than bodies. I have been impressed with Liam Williams. He is elusive, has an offloading game and plays what he sees in front of him. He doesn’t kick as much and wants to play with ball in hand. While Williams has been named on the left wing for Saturday’s Test at the Principality Stadium, I would select him at fullback every single time in order to get the best out of him. I would shift Leigh Halfpenny to wing which is probably his best position. Moreover, there is an option to play young Sam Davies, who has been named on the bench, at flyhalf. He is in the mould of a George Ford type player and could offer Wales more width on attack. Wales claim that they want to play more expansively but when a game plan has been drilled into you for eight years, it’s difficult to get out of that mindset. South Africa are in much the same boat and rely heavily on set-piece ascendancy and gain-line success. There is not a great degree of deception from the Springboks on attack. South Africa’s strength was always scoring tries off the back of scrums and dummy plays behind the flyhalf and centres but we don’t really see that at the moment. South Africa’s modus operandi is simply to run hard and straight at you. As a defender, you can see what is coming and you have just got to tackle. And if you can put in an effective hit, you can nullify the threat. Wales and South Africa try hard to outmuscle their opponents but when that tactic doesn’t work, you have to try other things which Australia, England, Ireland and New Zealand have done. For me, the top four-ranked teams have prospered because they have been more expansive in terms of approach and we can learn from them because they are on another level and above everyone else at the moment. In rugby, you have to shorten defences, evade tackles and create space so as to score tries.

Sport24 asked: Will mental preparation be more important than physical for the teams this week?

Tom Shanklin: I believe so. You are not going to be able to top up your fitness in a short space of time. As such, it’s all about mental preparation. It’s about ensuring that you are in the right head space, are looking after yourself, doing your job and not worrying about anyone else. Both teams need to try to find some confidence and belief from somewhere. Confidence is a vital commodity in professional sport and might come in the form of a big hit, a covering tackle or a huge run. No matter what is going on behind the scenes in SA rugby, they are all proud sportsmen and want to play for their pride. In terms of mentality, Allister Coetzee’s men are not just going to give up and roll over. The worrying aspect for Wales is that South Africa have really had a kick up the backside post-Florence and the upshot is that the Springboks will be even more desperate to win than Wales.

Sport24 asked: In your professional opinion what is the key to a successful midfield partnership?

Tom Shanklin: One word: Balance. You need to pair a robust strike-runner with a player who has soft hands and can play as a second-receiver. Most of my career, I combined with Gavin Henson in the midfield and I was a foil for him. If you both know your designated roles, it certainly keeps opposing teams honest. They are left wondering where you are going to play and what you are going to do. Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies have done well as a centre combination for Wales over the last few years. The duo has played together for many Tests and have an innate understanding of each other. However, Davies and Scott Williams will partner on Saturday and I believe that what Wales lose in terms of Roberts’s physicality, they gain in Williams’s ball-playing ability. Williams offers something different and is very effective laterally as well. He will take it to the line and look for runners. If that is the pair Wales want to go with now there has to be consistency in selection so that combinations are able to develop. South Africa also need to settle on combinations because chopping and changing personnel is not the answer. While Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Francois Venter have been reunited in the Springbok midfield, having started together against the Barbarians, in recent times there has been very few stable partnerships around the field for South Africa. There are plenty of ifs and buts in the current Springbok team and, much like Wales, the former need to find a group of players that they are going to stick with in order to create cohesion and confidence. International rugby is all about building partnerships and you can’t get that if players are in and out.

Sport24 asked: Could we witness a high tension, low-quality Test as Stuart Barnes has suggested?

Tom Shanklin: It quite possibly could be a match which is pockmarked by a low skill-level and plenty of unforced errors. Wales and South Africa’s fundamentals have to improve because they haven’t been good enough this season. Both teams have been losing simple balls in contact when it has been available and other times they have been driven off the ball. Knock-ons and loose passes have also undermined their endeavour and let other teams back into the game. The number of skill errors will tell you just how much pressure is on the players to perform and win on Saturday. The talk in Wales this week has been: If you can’t take South Africa when they are down like this then you are never going to beat them. That isn’t an affront to South Africa but it speaks to the position they are in. However, with it being captain Adriaan Strauss’s final game for South Africa, his teammates are going to want to do it for him and we can expect a physically-demanding, closely-fought fixture. Frenchman Romain Poite will oversee the Test but I don’t think it will be anything too controversial. His appointment won’t favour any team in particular and I don’t foresee his presence being an issue.


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