Wales and England’s warm-up for RWC2019 continued Saturday afternoon at the Principality Stadium with the reverse of last week’s fixture. 7 days earlier, England had ran riot to build up a score before Wales could even get going, but this week’s match was a far closer affair, with George North’s first half try – when England had just lost Anthony Watson to the sin bin – and Dan Biggar’s conversion proving the difference as they emerged 13-6 victors.
This result meant that Wales rose to #1 in the World Rugby rankings for their first time in history, knocking New Zealand off the top spot for the first time in 509 weeks! Congratulations!
As someone who prefers a more attacking fly half, I may not be the biggest fan of Dan Biggar (especially when he’s appealing for everything and making a fuss), but I respect him as a top quality international 10. However, this week former Wales international J.J. Williams decided to undermine Wales’ World Cup preparations by saying that Wales would not win the tournament with Biggar at 10.
Biggar used his words as motivation this week and put in a great performance. Defensively, Biggar is one of the best at his position and there are very few players – at any position, not just fly half – who are as accomplished under the high ball. Whether kicking out of hand or off the tee, he is highly reliable. What he isn’t, however, is Gareth Anscombe. With both of them, it brought a great dynamic to the team, with Biggar coming off the bench to either seal the victory or put Wales int he right positions to get the wing. With Anscombe now out, however, Biggar is the only top quality 10 in the squad and the running of the entire game will likely fall to him. Biggar starting means that a change in tactics is required, but I think that sometimes this tactic becomes too much of a kick-first game, which can sometime feel wasted – as with some of the early kicks that Elliot Daly took unchallenged. He will not work the back line in the same way, but that does not make him a bad player. He showed as much when Anthony Watson was sin binned by immediately taking advantage of the extra man, catching England sleeping – don’t listen to Ugo Monye, it was entirely legal and he did not have to wait for Watson to leave the field – with a cross-kick to Josh Adams that took them into the England 22, before another cross kick back to the left wing for George North to catch with only Ken Owens anywhere near him.
What did surprise and worry me during this match was just how long Biggar was kept on the field. This was not an experimental lineup that needed to build chemistry, and after losing Anscombe last week I think Biggar should have been wrapped in cotton wool. When he injured his shoulder, he should have been straight off, but it seemed that Warren Gatland was again more interested in winning a nothing game for ranking points compared to protecting his star players ahead of the World Cup. Hopefully it doesn’t cost them in the coming weeks.
It feels like we have been saying this for years, but there are questions over the England midfield. George Ford looked good last week with a pack putting him on the front foot, but struggled to create anything in this match, while Piers Francis and Jonathan Joseph were anonymous. Even Joe Cokanasiga had a relatively quiet game in attack, rarely being brought into the midfield. As a result, England failed to muster any attacks of note and finished with just 2 penalties to their name.
While having a big carrier at number 8 in the form of Billy Vunipola is a big help, England need a physical ball carrier in the back line to give them regular front-foot ball. Even if they are not taking the ball every time, they will be an effective decoy as defenders will have to account for them, leaving gaps somewhere in the defensive line. England really need to hope Manu Tuilagi can stay fit.
RWC2019 Winners & Losers
Coming in late for his first Test appearance since the match against Australia that saw him get injured, Leigh Halfpenny had a solid game and put in a timely reminder of his abilities as a defensive 15, while Aaron Wainwright built on last week’s performance with a great shift at home, making good metres and keeping attacks going with some good offloads. With Faletau out of the tournament, I think he is a near-certain member of the squad after the last 2 weeks.
Wainwright’s place in the squad may come at the expense of fellow starter in this match James Davies. Cubby is an incredibly talented flanker whose 7s experience gives him a different skill-set to his rivals, however he has found his chances limited in such a deep Welsh back row and an enforced removal just 24 minutes into this match will have not helped his chances of making the 31. Anscombe’s injury may have opened the door for Jarrod Evans to make it onto the plane, however Gatland’s insistence at keeping Biggar on the pitch despite being visibly uncomfortable following an injury makes me think that he is hesitant to bring in the inexperienced Cardiff Blues stand-off this close to the tournament.
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