Eyes On: France v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: France v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

The 2019 Six Nations kicked off in spectacular fashion on Friday night as Wales took a trip to Paris to take on the French. The Welsh came into the game on a run of 9 consecutive wins but did not adapt to the conditions in the first half and were thoroughly outplayed by a much better French team, who led 16-0 at half time. A try for Tomos Williams 6 minutes into the second half sparked a French collapse and George North capitalised on 2 mistakes to score twice and give the Welsh a 19-24 victory.

Typically French

It’s become cliché to say that you never know which France team will show up from week to week. They took it one step further last night by doing a 180⁰ turn in their performance at half time!

In the first half, Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez were playing the conditions to perfection by kicking for territory and daring the Welsh to play the ball away, while Louis Picamoles trucking the ball forward and Arthur Iturria throwing some lovely offloads, while the back 3 looked to capitalise on any loose kicks from Wales.

However in the second half, the Welsh started to control the ball better and Tomos Williams’ try from Josh Adams’ break appeared to fluster them. Iturria disappeared from the game, Picamoles was marshalled better by the Welsh defence and handling errors began to creep into the French game – most notably Yoann Huget’s fumble on his own line to gift North his first try. What really surprised me is how soon France started making wholesale changes, most notably the removal of Guilhem Guirado – who may not have been having the best match of his career but is still such an important leader for the team – at a time when they needed leaders to settle things down.

It looked like they may have got back into things when at 19-17 with just 9 minutes left, Gaël Fickou beat Adams to a high ball just outside the Welsh 22, but from the resulting breakdown everything went wrong for France. 2 forwards got in the way of Baptiste Serin’s pass to Lopez, causing him to throw a looped pass that the fly half needed to take above his head. Lopez – knowing there was space on the outside – chose to throw a pass to Sébastien Vahaamahina but threw a pass that the second row had to jump to take above his head – an awful pass considering the lock is over 2 metres tall and there was no reason to put the pass high. After 2 such poor passes put the French on the back foot, Vahaamahina should have just driven forward and allowed his team to reset, but instead he tried to throw an audacious wide pass to Huget – missing out both Maxime Médard and Romain Ntamack – that was easily picked off by North and ran back for the winning try.

There is no way that a team should be throwing away a 16-point halftime lead at home and coupled with their loss to Fiji in the Autumn Tests, there is certainly a cause to be worried about the fragility of the French team when put under pressure, despite the obvious promise their first half performance showed.

Discipline almost costly

If not for the French mistakes, Wales’ lack of discipline would have cost them the match. There were so many silly little penalties that you would not expect a team of this experience to be giving away. From Justin Tipuric competing too hard at the lineout and pulling his man down to Ross Moriarty diving on the ball from an offside position after Gareth Davies knocked on at a scrum, in a game that they were struggling to control, these infringements were just giving he French extra chances. There was also a period following Liam Williams’ disallowed try where Wales gave away a series of silly penalties that allowed the French to make their way down the length of the pitch without any real pressure.

It was not even just the discipline in terms of penalties that was lacking at times in this game (particularly the first half) as they made errors that a team as well coached as they are should not be making. George North bit in to tackle Arthur Iturria when Gareth Anscombe was already making the tackle and this allowed the flanker to offload to Huget, who now had the space to run in for France’s second try. Then with just 30 seconds left in the half, Wales won a free kick in their 22. Rather than hold onto the ball for a couple of phases then kicking the ball out of play, they chose to kick downfield to the French, giving them the chance of 1 last attack before halftime and leading to a drop goal that could have proved crucial later in the game.

I hope that these errors do not count against some of these players as I think Wales had the right players involved for the game and I think Anscombe and Williams deserve an extended run in the starting line-up, but Wales need to ensure that they start matches faster and keep their discipline better if they want to win the tournament.

Bigger but not better

The French scrum showed on Friday night that, contrary to what some people may say, size isn’t everything. With behemoths like Uini Atonio, Vahaamahina and Paul Willemse starting, the French boasted one of the heaviest packs in the history of international rugby, considerably heavier than their Welsh opponents. Yet despite this, the Welsh scrum was the one winning penalties and free kicks for much of the match.

While size and strength obviously helps in a scrum, technique is also very important and I feel that this is an area where the French struggle without Rabah Slimani. The French began having more luck with the scrum later in the game, but whether this was down to their better scrummagers being on the bench or the Welsh replacements not being able to match what their starters had been able to do.

With England’s generally strong scrum next up, it will be interesting to see how the French pack fairs at Twickenham, especially if Atonio is missing as it appeared to be a hamstring issue that saw him be replaced early in the second half.

Top performance

George North may have been given the Man of the Match award, but to me the standout player in the game was his teammate Josh Navidi. The flanker did make a couple of mistakes, with a knock on ending an attack in the first half and one moment where he was out of position leading to a penalty for Dan Biggar holding on, but he put in a huge performance beyond that and had a real impact on the game. He ran hard with the ball and made good ground on a couple of occasions to put Wales on the front foot, including the build-up to Liam Williams’ disallowed try. But most notable was his defence. His strength in the tackle was stopping even Louis Picamoles in his tracks and forcing handling errors, while he also did a great job of holding players off the ground to create mauls and turnover ball.

To me, he would walk into the starting line-up of most 6 Nations teams, but if everyone was fit for Wales there is no guarantee he will start, such is the strength in depth in the Welsh back row!

Post-Autumn Internationals Rugby Ramble

Post-Autumn Internationals Rugby Ramble

The Fourth Game

So for most nation’s rugby fans, the Autumn Internationals finished last weekend, but fans of Wales and South Africa – or people like me desperate for a rugby fix – were treated to one solitary match in a fourth week of Autumn International action. But should this game have taken place?

This fourth Test was played outside World Rugby’s international window, so Wales’ selections were seriously hampered not just by existing injuries, but also by players based outside Wales being unavailable due to club commitments. Taulupe Faletau was the only Premiership player to feature for Wales this weekend as I believe he has a release written into his contract with Bath, but his club are now understandably in trouble with Premiership Rugby for going against their rules.

The extra game must also have an effect on Wales’ position in the World Rankings as they are generally the only one of the home nations to play all 3 of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa every autumn, which considering they don’t have great records against these teams must surely be harming their ranking and possibly contributing to harder pools at the World Cups.

Considering the quality of crowds they get at the Principality Stadium, I can understand why the WRU choose to play an extra match as it brings in extra money while also getting a chance to blood less experienced players on the international stage when the Premiership-based players are unavailable. I have no problem with Wales continuing to play an extra match but think they could benefit from tweaking the scheduling of the games. At the moment, Wales are basically only putting out their ideal squads for 2 out of 4 games, as one of their 3 games during the window will be against a Tier 2/3 team (this year was Georgia) and they will put out a less experienced squad for this and also have a weakened squad forced on them by the loss of Premiership players in the final Test. I think it would benefit Wales to try and arrange for the Tests against the 3 big nations to be in the international window, while then playing the lower tier nation in the other Test match. This way, Wales are not taking a hit in the rankings by playing a weakened team against a rival, fans get to see the stars play in up to 3 matches and the national team still gets to develop less experienced players against an emerging nation.

Going South in the rankings

This was not a great autumn for South Africa. When the Springboks whitewashed France 3-0 over the summer, there were thoughts that they had finally turned a corner under Allister Coetzee, however finishing third in the Rugby Championship following a record defeat to New Zealand suggested things weren’t as rosy as they seemed and they went 2-2 this Autumn with wins against France and Italy but losses to Wales and France. This indifferent form has seen them fall out of the top 5 in the World Rankings, leapfrogged by a Scotland side that was missing a number of stars.

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Things didn’t really improve during the game

While the 24-22 score against Wales looks commendable at first glance, it must be remembered that this was a Wales team missing a number of top players that completely outplayed the Boks in the opening 40. Against Ireland, they did not appear able to cope with the home team’s kicking game, and their performance against Wales suggested that very little had been done to improve on this throughout November as Wales frequently took advantage of this. Dillyn Leyds and Warrick Gelant both showed flashes of quality in attack but very little to make a fan feel comfortable when their team are defending. Are they really the best options for South Africa right now? You could ask that question about a number of the team.

South Africa brought in a 30-cap minimum for players outside of the country, but they still appear to be behind home-based players in the pecking order. Granted Francois Hougaard and Pat Lambie have only just returned from injury, but surely Francois Louw, Bryan Habana, Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen and Duane Vermeulen (all experienced internationals) would improve this team, while Kwagga Smith – an important cog in the Lions’ run to the 2017 Super Rugby final and a star of autumns match between the All Blacks and Barbarians – would have also given the Boks another option tactically.

Elton Jantjies is not a reliable enough fly half at Test level and the decision to take off Handre Pollard – one of their better performers on Saturday – for him may have actually cost them the game. There are some quality players in this squad – Malcom Marx and Siya Kolisi have had great seasons and the squad should be built around them and a core of reliable players – but I feel they need to find someone to replace the man at the top. South Africa have struggled the last 2 seasons under Coetzee (which says a lot about how the French are struggling at the moment!) and I think they need to move on quickly if they don’t want a repeat of the embarrassment they felt when they lost to Japan in RWC2015. At least at that point they were able to recover and make it to the semi-final, as of now I wouldn’t trust the current crop to be able to do this.

Taking a chance

A number of players made their debuts or added to their limited caps in November due to limited availability of some international regulars. Some may struggle to make many more appearances for their country barring an injury crisis, but there were some who have surely put themselves on the coaches’ radar.

I wrote about Josh Navidi’s long wait for a home debut a few weeks back and I am happy to say that he impressed me throughout the Autumn Internationals. This was a Wales squad in transition as they try to change their playing style, but Navidi shone despite this. Considering the quality of his rivals – Warburton, Faletau, Moriarty and Tipuric all went on the Lions Tour – Navidi will need to stay at the top of his game, but I would not be surprised to see him on the bench come the 6 Nations and perhaps even pushing for a start if Moriarty’s injury issues persist.

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A bold prediction made by my mate weeks before Parkes’ Wales debut

Saturday’s game against South Africa also saw the international debut of Hadleigh Parkes. The 30-year-old kiwi has just qualified for Wales on residency and was thrown straight into the starting lineup against the Boks. A good friend of mine is a Scarlets fan and has been hyping him up to me ever since the squad for the Autumn Internationals was announced. Having watched him on Saturday, I can understand why! His playing style seems to fit what Wales are looking for at 12 with their new style of play – a more open gameplan with playmakers at 10 & 12 – and at the moment it looks like he will be competing for the starting spot with Owen Williams. Williams looked decent in attack but I think that Parkes looked more solid in defence, which has in my mind put him in pole position for the 6 Nations. With Scott Williams off to Ospreys in the summer, it looks like Parkes and Jonathan Davies (once back from injury) will be the de facto centre partnership at Scarlets, so I think this chemistry will also be beneficial to the national team moving forwards.

Sticking with Scarlets, Steff Evans had a mixed autumn for Wales. He had some flashes of quality in attack but not as many as fans would have hoped or expected, however his defence was questionable and a number of tackles showed poor technique similar to that of Leigh Halfpenny, which proved costly in a couple of cases. Personally, I think that Evans should be given more of a chance as there were very few moments where the Welsh back line looked confident playing the attacking style that will benefit him, while the chopping and changing of players in the midfield and the loss of Jon Davies put a lot more pressure on him in defence. Injuries to George North and Liam Williams also added to the chances for Hallam Amos this autumn and I feel that he took his chances well with a couple of good tries. Depending on how much rugby North between his return from injury and the start of the 6 Nations, I would be tempted to start Amos instead of North in the next match. Leigh Halfpenny has also not been as impressive as fans would have hoped in recent Wales performances and is arguably not the form 15 in the Wales squad, despite Gatland’s insistence on putting Williams on the wing. If I was picking the starting back 3 for the 6 Nations on current form, I would give Evans and Amos the chances on the wing with Williams moving to 15.

International Rugby Ramble: Autumn Internationals Week 1

International Rugby Ramble: Autumn Internationals Week 1

Never give up

Saturday gave us the next chapter in possibly one of the greatest rugby stories of the modern era: that of Ian McKinley. The fly half, who played for Ireland U20s was forced to retire from rugby in 2011 after a stray boot caused him to lose sight in his left eye. McKinley moved to Italy to help coach junior rugby, but over recent years has worked his way back into playing professional rugby through the Italian leagues wearing a pair of specially manufactured goggles. His performances with Viadana and then Zebre led to him earning a contract with Benetton ahead of the 2016/17 Pro12 season.

The 2017/18 season has seen McKinley’s incredible comeback continue, as he has was called into the Italian national team’s squad for the Summer Tests – though he did not make an appearance – and was called up again for the Autumn Internationals. On Saturday, McKinley earned his first senior cap for Italy coming off the bench to replace Carlo Canna and even slotted the final penalty in their 19-10 victory over Fiji.

I can understand why people do not like the residency rules – and when it comes to project players I completely agree – but this is one of those wonderful circumstances where it has really benefited a player and given them a second chance. It is also a real benefit to Italy, as fly half has for years been a weak spot for them but they are now getting a bit of depth at the position with Canna, McKinley and Tommy Allan. Italian rugby is on the up in the Pro14, hopefully the national team won’t be far behind.

Persistence pays off

Another rugby story that shows the importance of never giving up is that of Welsh back row Josh Navidi. The Cardiff Blues back row made his senior debut for Wales way back in June 2013, when Wales played in Japan, but did not gain another cap until this summer, when he started against Tonga and Samoa during the Summer Tests. On Saturday, over 4 years after his first start, Navidi finally made his home debut for Wales in their 21-29 loss to Australia. Navidi has been so consistent for the Blues over the years, it is great to see that he is finally getting the caps his performances have deserved.

Of course, it is the unavailability of other players that has given him this chance. His first 3 caps have all come when players have been away with the British & Irish Lions and this autumn the Welsh are missing Ross Moriarty, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. Against the Wallabies, both Navidi and fellow flanker Aaron Shingler put in solid (if not spectacular) performances that suggest they can at least hold their own on the international scene. Wales currently have incredible depth in the back row, and if everyone was available I would not want the job of picking the best out of Navidi, Shingler, Warburton, Moriarty, Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, James Davies, Sam Cross, Dan Lydiate and James King. Just imagine if Sam Underhill or Ben Morgan had picked Wales over England too…

An unfortunate incident

If I was asked to pick the best outside centre in rugby at the moment, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick Jonathan Davies. It is a huge shame then that we will not see him in the 2018 6 Nations as he is expected to be out for 6 months following surgery for what looked to be an ankle injury but is being reported as a foot injury. The replays of the incident did not look nice as Davies twisted awkwardly as he was brought down by Marika Koroibete, but should he have even had the ball?

The restart from Australia was taken when the clock was already in the red beyond the 80 minute mark. It is great to see the new-look Welsh team willing to play from deep, but with the score at 21-29 there is no way they could win that game. The kickoff was taken by Dan Biggar who had enough time to kick the ball dead, however he immediately shipped it off to Davies. Trying to play the length on the field had no benefits in this circumstance, but has proved extremely costly for Wales.

On the plus side for Davies, at least he didn’t have a medic making things worse like South African prop Coenie Oosthuizen did!

Falling foul of the laws

There have been talks of a global season for a long time, but I appreciate that it is not easy to implement due to differing seasons. However even if there is no global season, I think World Rugby need to look at when they implement law changes.

When I looked at the new law changes back in July, I was looking at all the laws being brought into Northern Hemisphere rugby at the start of this season. However half of the laws had already been in place in the Southern Hemisphere since the New Year and the other half are not coming in until the coming New Year. This does not make it easy for referees or players who are suddenly having to play different laws than what they are used to, while knowing that they will be back to their usual laws in just a couple of weeks. We saw South African flanker Siya Kolisi fall foul of the law variations as he was penalised for kicking a ball out of a ruck – still legal for now in the South, but illegal in the North – and I’m sure this won’t be the last time someone gets caught out during the Autumn Internationals.

If World Rugby do not feel that a global calendar in feasible I can understand that, but I think that they need to ensure any law variations take effect at the same time worldwide and need to find a date when they can do so without changing the laws part way through a competition.