So moving forwards, I’ve decided to start a new series of articles called “Tim’s Thoughts”. These posts will follow the same rough format of my previous article recapping one of England’s U20 matches, with a quick discussion about my main thoughts and opinions having watched the game. These will often focus on a particular match, but I may also focus on a series of matches, for example recapping a full weekend of 6 Nations games in one article. So without further ado…
On Saturday, Wales kicked off their Autumn series with a crushing defeat at the hands of Australia. Though the final score was 8-32, it is safe to say that Australia could – and probably should – have finished with at least 50 points. A combination of injury and personal issues meant that Wales went into this game without a number of 1st team regulars, including Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies and Taulupe Faletau, however this does not excuse the manner of defeat. With the Pools being drawn for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in May, every match is important as Wales look to get their best possible place in the World Rankings to avoid another Group of Death. With that in mind, here are 6 thoughts on Saturday’s game:
No defending that defence
For years, Wales have been considered as a team with a very strong defence. Shaun Edwards has been repeatedly praised for his work as the national team’s defensive coach, but their performance on Saturday afternoon was nothing short of woeful! That Australia only scored 32 points was due more to their errors in attack than Wales defending well, butchering a number of chances with handling errors. It is also likely that had Dan Biggar not tackled Dane Haylett-Petty early, he would have gone over for the try – though I completely agree with Craig Joubert’s decision not to award a penalty try, citing that with North coming across to cover the try was not 100% certain.
Wales defended very narrow, often getting in trouble when Australia got the ball wide quick – including a number of early cross-field chips to the Welsh left wing – however they still got cut apart through the middle on first phase ball from the set piece on numerous occasions, which would have been almost unthinkable just a few years ago. While the late withdrawal of Jonathan Davies will not have helped the defensive organisation, Scott Williams has been the go-to replacement at centre for a number of years and is a regular in the Welsh squad, so this should not have caused such a poor performance defensively.
In international rugby, it is not very often that you win a game having conceded 5 tries, so Wales must get back to the high levels of defensive performance if they want to start winning the big games.
Options in the back row
As a Gloucester fan I may be a bit biased, but I think it’s safe to say that Ross Moriarty was one of the few Welsh players who gave a good account of himself on Saurday. He threw himself about in defence, making a number of big tackles, and was also one of the more effective players making the hard yards in attack. One of Gloucester’s standout players so far this season, his mix of pace and power gives the Welsh back row a new dimension. Moriarty, Warburton, Lydiate, Faletau and Tipuric all bring something different to the team, so when all are fit and available it will provide a great chance for the coaching team to be able to pick the players on form and allow them to adapt their playing style dependant on the opposition.
Many happy returns?
It was great to see Leigh Halfpenny back in a Welsh shirt after over a year of absence from the international game due to injury. Unfortunately, his return wasn’t as glorious as he was likely hoping. His goal-kicking almost perfectly summed up the Welsh performance: usually so reliable but completely off the boil on the day, only managing one successful kick at goal. Hopefully he will be given the chance to make amends in the next game, but with Dan Biggar’s reliability off the tee, a poor start could see him lose his place as Wales’ primary goal kicker. Assuming the 1st choice back 3 comprises Halfpenny, George North and Liam Williams, it will be interesting to see who is picked at 15, Williams having performed well there for Wales in Hafpenny’s absence.
Another player to make a not-so-grand return to the international game was winger Alex Cuthbert. Often left isolated by the his teammates’ narrow defending, he was caught out of position on a number of early chipped cross-field kicks and was also caught on an island in the initial break leading to Dan Biggar’s yellow card. His impact going forwards was also limited, with only one attacking run of note that saw him stopped just short of the line having broken through around the half way line on the opposite side of the field. An experienced international with over 40 Wales and Lions caps to his name, I agree with the pundits and commentators who were suggesting that Cuthbert should have done better, either carrying the ball in the opposite hand to allow him to fend off the tackler or straightening his line to draw the last defender and put over the man outside him. Liam Williams is all but certain to take Cuthbert’s place once fit, but I would not be surprised to see Hallam Amos – who impressed after replacing George North as the game opened up – take the starting spot for the next game.
Much like Leigh Halfpenny, Australia fly half Bernard Foley had an indifferent day kicking off the tee, succeeding with only 2/5 conversions and a penalty. However his performance in open play caused Wales problems all day and he finished the game with a try and a deserved Man of the Match award. English fans will remember how devastating he can be with ball in hand from the World Cup and he clearly showed on Saturday that it was not a one-off. He may not be the complete 10 that some teams boast, but for a team looking to play exciting and expansive rugby, there are very few better fly halves in international rugby at the moment.
An argument towards a global season
The Australian team have come to the Northern Hemisphere at the end of their season, having spent the last couple of months competing against Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand in the Rugby Championship. The Welsh players are only a few months into their season, so have spent the same time period playing in their domestic leagues and a couple of matches in the European Cups. While it could be argued that the Wales should have been the fresher team, the Wallabies will have been able to use the last couple of months to improve their chemistry whilst playing against a higher level of competition. What may have been lost watching the fantastic try-saving tackle by Nick Frisby on Hallam Amos is that Wales should have scored phases earlier on the far side of the pitch, but butchered a huge overlap with a number of pick and go attempts between the posts and then a poor miss pass that gave the defence time to adjust. If the team had been playing international rugby together for the last couple of weeks then I am sure they would have taken this chance.
I can’t see it happening any time soon, but I seriously feel that the only way we can get a fair assessment of where teams stand against each other away from the World Cup is if they are all playing at the same point in their season.
With the draw for the Rugby World Cup pools due in May and based on the world rankings at that point, every game between now and then is vital. Wales went into the weekend 5th in the rankings. This loss, combined with Argentina’s defeat of Japan and Ireland’s historic victory over New Zealand, has seen Wales drop down to 7th. Wales are without head coach Warren Gatland for the rest of the season as he prepares for the Lions Tour to New Zealand. Their remaining Autumn Internationals are against 2 of the teams ranked above them (Argentina and South Africa) and Japan, a potential banana skin, before a 6 Nations where they play 3/5 matches away from home. With so much at stake, there will be a lot of pressure on the players, but also on caretaker head coach Rob Howley and the rest of the coaching team. The current coaching team has been in place for a long time, could a poor Autumn series be the beginning of the end for them?
As always, these are just my thoughts on the game, I would love to hear your opinions. Do you think that this was just a poor performance on the day, or is this something more serious for Wales?