The game is on! After a dramatic 2 weeks that saw the game at risk from a player strike, the Principality Stadium played host to a Wales v England match that saw both teams continue their last-minute rebuild ahead of the World Cup. And in a match that clearly highlighted how both teams are still growing, it was clear that England are a step or two ahead of Wales on their process, as they backed up an early Owen Farrell penalty with a great try on 1 minutes. A strong carry off from Ollie Lawrence off the back of a scrum took the English into the Welsh 22, and a quick recycle allowed them to spread the ball further the same way to send Anthony Watson over in the corner. A penalty at the restart gifted Leigh Halfpenny with a simple penalty to cut the deficit, but as the clock ticked into and through the second corner, neither could create anything of real note, which resulted in the 3-8 scoreline remaining to the break.
Wales had barely threatened in the first half but were on the scoresheet almost immediately after the break, with a slow attack down the line giving Louis Rees-Zammit the chance to insert himself in the line and intercept Max Malins’ pass to canter in from halfway, gifting Halfpenny the simplest of conversions to put Wales ahead. However England immediately hit back, and when a penalty gave them easy access to the Welsh 22, they went through the phases before Kyle Sinckler forced his way over the line, with referee Mathieu Raynal quick to award the try. The game remained close, with neither side able to make any further headway, though as the game reached the final 10 minutes England remained in the ascendency. And they had a chance to seal the game going into the final 10 minutes, only for Henry Slade to put boot to ball with a 3v2 on the edge of the Welsh 22. However, just minutes later they created another opportunity, and when Slade was stopped just short of the Welsh try line, the ball was quickly recycled to put Lawrence over in the corner to secure a 10-20 victory.
Oh boy Warren, you have a big job on your hand. Granted, the preparations for this match were heavily impacted by contract issues with the WRU, but even so, the reason this game was close had more to do with them facing another team at early stages of a rebuild than Wales doing much of note.
Owen Williams’ return from the wilderness saw him start at 10 as Warren Gatland looks at his options beyond Dan Biggar and the often-injured Gareth Anscombe, and despite having played a big part in the Ospreys’ resurgence this year, he looked completely out of his depth running a back line at Test level, not that things drastically improved with the arrival of Dan Biggar.
In Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit, Wales have 2 top quality attacking wings, and yet they are wasted when Wales play like they did today. There were too many forward carries off 9 or 10—including multiple occasions when spreading the ball down the back line would have created an overlap—which are always easier for the defence to deal with, while also hampers Wales even more as they lack the big carriers they need to consistently force their way over the gain line, even more so considering Jac Morgan was left out of the 23! And when they weren’t doing this, they were kicking the ball, often not in a way that allowed their wings to compete, and also far too often towards Freddie Steward, despite his aerial prowess already being well-known.
Players like Adams and Rees-Zammit have the ability to make something from nothing, but not on a regular basis. To give them a real chance, they need to get the ball in space, and preferably with a gap ahead of them for them to attack. Wales need to find a way to create this space quickly, or the Wooden Spoon may not be their biggest tournament disappointment in 2023 given the teams they have to face in their World Cup pool.
Is anyone else getting worried about Owen Farrell’s goal kicking?
The England captain used to be one of the most reliable goal kickers in Test rugby, so reliable that you would bet on him to nail anything within his range between the 5m lines, with a decent accuracy from wider out. However recently, he is missing kicks that you would expect any Test-level kicker to be nailing, and is currently kicking at less than 50% in this year’s tournament.
While England obviously have other areas that they need to improve right now if they want to be pushing for the latter stages of the World Cup, when you get to the later stages, you need a kicker who you can rely on to keep the scoreboard ticking over against top defences and to ignore the pressure to kick the match-winner late on. Think Jonny Wilkinson throughout 2003, or Leon MacDonald fresh from his whitebait fishing, or conversely the agony of Leigh Halfpenny’s missed kick in 2007.
England missed an opportunity when pairing Farrell and Marcus Smith in midfield to let Farrell focus on the captaincy and give Smith the kicking tee, as right now the man who appears to be the next up should Farrell get injured has minimal experience kicking at Test level—a very different type of crowd to what you see at club level. But now, with England reverting to a single playmaker system and Farrell taking most of the minutes, that opportunity seems to be gone.
England need to hope that this doesn’t cost them in France later this year.
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