Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v England

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v England

The final round of the Autumn Nations Cup pool stage kicked off this afternoon with England’s trip to Llanelli to face Wales. With 2 wins from 2, England arrived at Parc y Scarlets the heavy favourites, but it was the home side who took the lead as Dan Biggar blocked at attempted grubber from Henry Slade, the ball was hacked on into the English dead ball area and centre Johnny Williams – who had previously scored for England in a uncapped match against the Barbarians – beat off all opposition to dot the ball down, with Leigh Halfpenny nailing the conversion. England had been the stronger team before the try and remained so, and when Dan Biggar knocked on after being tackled in the air by Sam Underhill – a clear penalty that referee Romain Poite inexplicably deemed legal despite the TMO’s protestation – England went through the phases and eventually drew in the Welsh defence enough to put Henry Slade over for the try out wide, Farrell missing the conversion – his 2ⁿᵈ miss following an early penalty – to allow Wales to keep the lead. Halfpenny missed a penalty that would have extended the lead, and Owen Farrell found his range with the boot to kick 2 penalties and give England a 7-11 lead at the break.

Wales made a number of changes early in the second half, but it didn’t bring any immediate success as they were tackled over their own line following a 5m lineout. England went through the phases off the scrum and with the ball just inches from the line, Mako Vunipola managed to pick from the base and pirouette through contact to score, Farrell adding the 2 points. Wales kept themselves in the fight with 2 penalties from Dan Biggar, but the game was effectively killed off with 13 minutes remaining, as Ben Youngs took advantage of a loose ball on the floor following a deliberate knock on from Wales 40m out, going though a gap and spreading the ball to Anthony Watson, who was stopped 5m short of the line. However Poite, who had completely missed the knock on decided that a gain of 35 metres was not sufficient to call the advantage over and Farrell duly added the 3 points off the tee to take the lead beyond 7 points. As the clock ticked down, Farrell added another 3 points off the tee but missed a final attempt, and England came away with the 13-24 victory to top the pool.

Eat sleep, kick, repeat

England’s defence was once again fantastic. Their set piece largely dominant. Their attack… Boring? Repetitive? Lacking? Unimaginative? There are certainly very few positive words I can think of to describe it.

Let’s not forget that had Romain Poite been doing a better job, 8 of England’s points wouldn’t have counted and some of the scrum penalties against Wales were very dubious – and this is coming from an Englishman! England have a world class winger in Jonny May and plenty of talented attacking players, however Eddie Jones instead chooses to go for Ben Youngs and George Ford to kick all their ball back to Wales. Yes a lot of them were meant to be contestable kicks, but they were poor, and at best those kicks are usually a 50/50 to retain. Meanwhile Wales are left with what appears to be a decent defence because it was hardly ever tested in the game.

Yes, a solid set piece, reliable goal kicker and stingy defence will only get you so far and you need to have an attack of your own – just look at how dangerous France are at the moment with an incredible attack and defence!

Just one look at a weekend of Premiership action will show you that the attacking talent is available to Eddie Jones, there just needs to be a change of mindset from the coaches to take this team to the next level.

Time running out?

It wasn’t just the England attack that was lacking in this game, as the Welsh attack produced… well, nothing! The one time they truly looked dangerous was Williams’ try, which was just chasing down a blocked kick.

The pack were clearly missing the talents of players like Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi and struggled to make any ground to put the team on the front foot, and this meant that the backs were unable to create any space, with Louis Rees-Zammit’s best chance coming when he had 5m of space when getting the ball – however this was against Anthony Watson, who had only just come on and had the pace and angle to cover him – and Josh Adams never even got that!

While the appointment of Wayne Pivac seemed a great move following his success with the Scarlets and the perfect cure to years of Warrenball, it feels like he is struggling to get this team performing at anything close to an acceptable level, and with Scott Robertson looking so impressive with the Crusaders, I can’t help feel that the WRU should reach out to see if he would be interested in stepping up to international rugby and making the move to bring him in before the All Blacks move on from Ian Foster.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Georgia

With England winning against Ireland to take the lead in their Autumn Nations Cup pool, the pool’s losing teams from Week 1 faced off at Parc-y-Scarlets. After a nervy start, Callum Sheedy opened the scoring with a penalty, but the real breakthrough did not come until the 26ᵗʰ minute, when Nick Tompkins ran a crash ball off the scrum and offloaded to catch the Georgian defence unprepared, allowing Sheedy to throw a miss pass to Louis Rees-Zammit to score his first Test try in the corner on his first Test start, Sheedy kicking the conversion to put Wales into double figures. The rest of the half passed with little of note, with the Lelos’ only real chance of points a 42m penalty from Tedo Abzhandadze, which sailed wide left to end the half.

The second half began very similar to the end of the first, with Sheedy also pulling a penalty wide left from almost the exact same spot, however he made amends with his next kick on 52 minutes. As the hour approached, Rees-Zammit made probably the break of the game, beating multiple tacklers down the left wing before feeding Justin Tipuric, however the Wales captain caught a swinging arm as he was tackled, leading to him leaving the pitch with a head injury while the offender, Beka Saginadze, being sent to the sin bin. Wales failed to capitalise on the numerical advantage as hordes of replacements left the game disjointed, but as the clock ticked down they were able to finish on a high as they attacked down the blind side at a ruck, with Sheedy setting Rees-Zammit free and the Gloucester flier feeding replacement scrum half Rhys Webb on the inside to score the second try of the game and secure an 18-0 victory.

Looking ahead

With both Ireland and Wales on 1 win and 1 draw, and the Irish facing Georgia next weekend, Wales need a big result against England if they want to have any chance of finishing in the top half of the pool. After a less-than-impressive display against the Irish, don’t be surprised to see changes for this next match. But who put their hands up in this game?

In the pack, Samson Lee and Wyn Jones’ dominance over the Georgian scrum should put them in the driving seat against the might of the England pack. Aaron Wainwright had a better game against the Lelos and impressed with his carrying, which may earn him a return to the starting back row, while James Davies had a great cameo off the bench with a number of turnovers and may take the 7 shirt if Tipuric is unavailable.

In the back line the most obvious change would be at 12, where I feel that Johnny Williams impressed with his straight lines and hard running, potentially adding more dynamism than Owen Watkin to go with his physicality, while Louis Rees-Zammit may just earn a spot on the bench to take advantage of a tiring defence.

Worrying times

It’s not been a great couple of weeks for Georgian rugby. The Lelos have been held scoreless in both of their matches so far in this campaign, wit Abzhandadze’s missed penalty from 42 metres out one of the only times they have looked like they would score. The linebreaks have been severely limited in attack and it has now become familiar to see them kicking the ball away after going nowhere for a few phases.

In defence, they have been stout, not giving up too much in the way of full breaks – potentially helped by the conditions the last 2 weeks – but they have then let themselves down by giving away too many penalties at the breakdown.

But perhaps even more worrying was the way the much-vaunted scrum was dominated by the Welsh pack, being repeatedly pushed back and drawing a number of penalties.

After a number of years where it looked like they were on the up, This is a bad time for it to all fall apart for the Lelos, especially when you remember that they are only in the Autumn Nations Cup due to Japan pulling out. The Georgian Union needs to sort themselves and work on 2 things fast: First of all, they need to find a permanent head coach to replace Milton Haig, who did a wonderful job after 8 years with the Lelos but left after the World Cup – a whole year ago! Secondly, they need to be doing everything they can to get a franchise into the PRO14 as soon as possible to ensure that their players are up against top quality opposition as much as possible.

If these things aren’t worked out soon, I worry that the talents they have will be wasted.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Wales

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Wales

The newest tournament on the international rugby calendar got underway this evening in Dublin as Ireland and Wales kicked off the Autumn Nations Cup in Dublin.

After a confrontational opening quarter in which Johnny Sexton and Leigh Halfpenny each scored a penalty, Ireland found themselves on the Welsh try line and Quinn Roux – a late call-up to the starting line-up following Iain Henderson’s illness – managed to power himself the last few inches for the opening try, which was converted by Sexton. Sexton added another penalty but this was one of Sexton’s last impacts on the game as he was removed with a hamstring injury, and a change in the tides at the scrum soon saw Wales get back within a try through the boot of Leigh Halfpenny. The Irish dominance in open play continued however, and replacement fly half Billy burns soon opened his account on his debut with a penalty to bring the score to 16-6, with Andrew Porter just failing to dot down the ball over the line right before the break after issues at the Welsh lineout.

The Welsh had been very much the second team in the first half but they started slightly more positively after the break, with a Leigh Halfpenny penalty from halfway dropping just short, before another bisected the posts. That was as good as things got for Wales as Gareth Davies found his box kick charged down by Caelan Doris, who kept the ball in play for Cian Healy, who was held up over the line by Taulupe Faletau, but the Irish domination continued and with Wales creating very little, Billy Burns pulled the Irish away with another penalty and Conor Murray added 2 of his own after Burns was forced off the pitch. With the game secured and the clock ticking down, a strong Irish scrum in the 22 allowed Caelan Doris to pick off the base and offload to James Lowe, who had the strength to cross the line to cap off his international debut with a try, coverted by Murray for a final score of 32-9.

Lowe risk, high reward

James Lowe is a player who I have had my eye on for years, dating back to his time with the Chiefs in New Zealand. With his scoring record and blend of pace and power, I’ve always rated him and now that he has completed his residency period in Ireland, he has been able to show just what he can do on the international scene.

While his defence and covering of kicks could be improved, what he brings is good pace, but incredible power. If you give him half a gap he will punch through it and if you don’t get him down, he will continue to power himself on as long as he can, which he did to great effect in this game, needing multiple tacklers to bring him down and still only after making positive metres. He was arguably one of the most dangerous men on the pitch in this game and it was only right that he finished the game with a try, taking the ball from Caelan Doris as he came off the scrum and forcing his way over the line to embarrass the Welsh defence on first phase ball.

I suggested recently that the trio of Lowe, Conway and Keenan could prove effective for Ireland, with Keenan and Conway being elusive runners and more technical players, and Lowe providing the extra physical edge. With their success in this game despite a late call-up for Conway, the trio should be given the time to build a relationship together as a unit and kept the same through the coming weeks.

(Loose)Head-scratcher

I can’t help feel for Rhys Carré in this game. The Cardiff Blues loosehead suffered a torrid time in the opening quarter, being dominated at the scrum by Andrew Porter. Credit to the youngster though, he did not let his head drop despite a number of early penalties and in fact managed to fight back at the scrum despite the bad early look he gave referee Mathieu Reynal, and in fact managed to earn party and even a couple of penalties. And then suddenly he was yanked from the pitch just seconds before the end of the half to be replaced by the “better scrummager” Wyn Jones.

Now I could have understood this replacement in the opening 20 minutes as Carré’s early struggles in the scrum will paint a negative impression in the officials’ minds, but when the coaches chose to keep him on and he fought back in the scrum, he earned the chance to play the full starting role and there was absolutely no need to take him off with a scrum 5m from the try line with just seconds left in the half.

And did it really improve the game? Wyn Jones may have had some success, but the real improvement in the Welsh scrum didn’t come until Samson Lee came on at tighthead, while Wyn Jones ended up conceding the same amount of penalties as Carré.

At just 22 years old, Carré is still some years off of his prime. Hopefully getting the early shepherd’s crook here doesn’t negatively affect his development.

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Six Nations 2020: Wales v Scotland

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Scotland

The longest Six nations in history reached it’s final day with a customary Super Saturday. What was not so customary was the location, as Llanelli’s Parc y Scarlets played host to Wales and Scotland.

The swirling winds proved a nightmare for both sides, with a Finn Russell penalty the only points of the opening quarter. The first try came on the half hour mark, as a Scottish throw to the back of the lineout in their own 22 went too far and set up Rhys Carré for the opening try. Dan Biggar kicked the conversion and things got worse for the Scots as Finn Russell left the field injured. The Scots had a half-chance right before halftime, and though they were unable to convert it, they did win a penalty which Adam Hastings kicked to reduce the deficit at the break to a point.

The game remained close after the restart, but Scotland got the breakthrough as a catch and drive lineout resulted in Stuart McInally crossing for a try in the corner. With Dan Biggar having gone off injured, Leigh Halfenny kicked the Welsh back within a point, but the Scots got a kickable penalty at the death and, with Hastings now also off injured, Stuart Hogg kicked the 3 point to secure a 10-14 win, Scotland’s first win in Wales since 2002, and 4ᵗʰ place in the standings, while Wales’ first campaign under Wayne Pivac ended in a disappointing 5ᵗʰ place.

Record breaker

Probably the biggest disappointment about this result for Wales is that it came on the day that captain Alun Wyn Jones won his 149ᵗʰ cap to break Richie McCaw’s record for international caps.

The Ospreys lock has rightly become a legend of Welsh Rugby, having now earned 140 Test caps for Wales as well as 9 Test caps with the British and Irish Lions. A natural leader whether captain or not, he commands the lineout so well and will be putting in maximum effort from kickoff to the final whistle.

Like the man he is replacing at the top of the list of most Test caps, his relationship with the referees and his years of experience mean that he is able to not just toe the line of legality but push it to extremes without getting penalised.

Probably the greatest compliment that I can give him is that as a teammate or supporter, you love him, as an opponent, you hate him.

Van’s the man

While the selection of Blair Kinghorn on the wing was probably right for this match due to the way the swirling wind affected the high ball,  I can’t help but feel that the number 11 shirt should belong to Duhan van der Merwe moving forwards.

While Kinghorn is a talented player, he is also a more versatile player who could make an impact off the bench, while I would argue that the pairing of van der Merwe and Darcy Graham provides the most dangerous attacking tandem on the wings. But what van der Merwe also offers is the extra physicality that the Scots have often missed. By bringing him in off his wing, he provides a dangerous crash ball option, while if he can be put through a gap, he then has the pace to exploit it to the maximum.

Don’t be surprised to see the Edinburgh wing becoming a regular starter for Scotland in the Autumn Nations Cup and 2021 Six Nations, and potentially even making a late run for the British and Irish Lions touring party.

Welsh weakness

While van der Merwe adds to the Sottish physicality, the Welsh are really struggling in this area. Wales have fantastic players, but so many of them are lacking on the physical side, with small, technical back rowers and fast, agile wingers. While this can work to a degree, there are many teams who will require you to have a more physical edge in order to get the win.

This is even more evident right now with the loss of Hadleigh Parkes from the 12 shirt, while George North is a shadow of the player he used to be on the wing. While the inside centre position could be sorted in the coming years by Willis Haloholo and Johnny Williams, Wales needs to develop strong, mobile forwards to give the pack that extra oomph. Cory Hill and Will Rowlands could potentially be the guys in the second row but they need to prove it, as does Aaron Wainwright in the back row. Josh Navidi will always play above his strength, but ideally Wales also need Ross Moriarty to get back to his top form and bring back the physical running game he initially had when he first came on the scene with Wales and Gloucester.

If Wales can’t sort out their physical deficiencies soon, they could be in for some disappointing times.

Guinness Six Nations

France v Wales

France v Wales

With the 2020 Six Nations set to finally conclude next week and the Autumn Nations Cup begin straight after, France and Wales met at the Stade de France for a highly entertaining warm-up match.

Les Bleus may have won the Six Nations fixture back in February, but they were soon behind as some lovely passing from Justin Tipuric helped put Leigh Halfpenny over in the corner, Biggar landing the conversion and a penalty soon after. The French soon got going though, and after Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont broke to bring possession all the way to the Welsh try line, prop Cyril Baille crashed over from close range. France were growing into the game and after another penalty from Biggar, an offload from Virimi Vakatawa released Teddy Thomas down the right wing and he played the ball back inside to send Antoine Dupont over for the try, with Ntamack adding the conversion to put the French ahead. Their lead was soon increased as Gaël Fickou put Vakatawa through a hole and Dupont was again found supporting on an inside line for a second try in quick succession, Ntamack nailing the kick to make it 21-13 at the break.

The second half started close, with both kickers adding 3 points to their team’s score, while the closest either team came to a try in the 3ʳᵈ quarter was as French number 8 Grégory Alldritt ran a beautiful out-to-in line to breakthrough the Welsh goal-line defence, only to fail to keep hold of the pass. The French struck soon after the hour mark, though, as Josh Adams – who had moved to fullback following Halfpenny’s departure – failed to collect a high ball from Dupont, which the scrum half then collected before breaking through a gap in the Welsh defence and feeding his captain Charles Ollivon for another try. The Welsh kept coming, though Biggar (who had been struggling with an injury since the tenth minute) missed a couple of kicks at goal, but after Ntamack failed to clean up a kick through by Nick Tompkins, George North collected and fed Tompkins to bring the Welsh up to the French goal line, with Nicky Smith forcing himself over a few phases later. Any chance of a Welsh comeback was soon ended however, as Teddy Thomas chased and collected his own chip to go over in the corner, with Ntamack kicking the conversion to secure a 38-21 victory.

French flair

If the Irish were watching this match in preparation for next weekend’s Six Nations fixture, I can imagine they got a little nervous.

This may be one of the best French teams I can remember watching, and there is the potential that they will only get better over the next few years as the younger players gain experience and more players from the recently successful U20s team make the step up to the seniors. Right now, all the politics that always seems to plague French squads appears to be gone, and the pressure is off the team, leading to incredible performances.

Antoine Dupont is securing himself as one of the best scrum halves in the world, while Virimi Vakatawa is almost unplayable when on form, with an incredible blend of strength, pace and footwork, and a killer offload when all that fails! Teddy Thomas’ abilities have never been in question and Romain Ntamack looks experienced beyond his 21 years and 17 caps. And then in the pack, you are getting a great blend of sheer physical power and more technical prowess.

In this game, the French attack was pummelling away at the Welsh defensive line throughout, but as they grew into the game, they started to find and manipulate the gaps, especially around wherever Vakatawa could be found, while Dupont always seemed to be in just the right place whenever a teammate broke through.

Assuming the French can stay away from all the infighting and politics that seems to always destroy them, I would make France my favourites for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Risky business

When Gareth Anscombe first started showing signs of discomfort during Wales’ World Cup warm-up match against England, I felt that he should be removed immediately to avoid the risk that a small niggle could potentially become something worse. The doctors chose to let him continue, but he went off a little later with his World Cup dream over and an ACL injury that he is still to return from. Obviously, I can’t say that keeping him on the pitch made things worse, but in a “warm-up” or “friendly” ahead of a tournament, the last thing I want to do is risk one of my key players if they are carrying a knock.

So imagine my surprise when Dan Biggar started struggling with an injury to his leg just 10 minutes in, but continued to play until the 73ʳᵈ minute. Now, credit to Biggar that he is a warrior who doesn’t want to go off and let his team down, but there were a number of moments throughout the match where he was either clearly limping or not looking fully comfortable, and I can’t help feeling that this injury helped contribute to his uncharacteristically poor 57% success rate off the tee. I also noticed that he didn’t seem to be as much of a figure in the kick chase as usual, a big loss considering just how impressive he is in the air.

What makes the decision to keep him on even more perplexing is that they had a replacement fly half on the bench in the form of Rhys Patchell, who could have very easily taken over the running of the team at any point, but was instead wasted on a 7-minute cameo with the victory already out of Wales’ reach.

It will be interesting to see how Wayne Pivac acts in the future of any key players take a knock.

The beginning of the end?

While it is wonderful to see Taulupe Faletau back in the Welsh line-up, I couldn’t help question before the match if he was still able to hold a spot in the starting XV, let along the wider squad. 80 minutes later and I still don’t feel any more confident.

The Bath number 8 was arguably one of the best in the world at his position and at 29 should still have a handful of good years in him, but he has missed so much time over recent years with a number of injuries and looks a shadow of the player he used to.

He used to be a real threat with ball in hand in wide areas, but in this game only carried 4 times for a tiny 9 metres. Defensively, he was still reliable with a 100% tackle success rate but that was only from 9 tackles, far off the total of Justin Tipuric, who you would much rather have getting over the ball after the tackle rather than making the tackle himself. The only other bit to Faletau’s game was his cleaning up, which he did to some degree with the scrum coming under heavy pressure.

But is tackling and cleaning up really enough from a Tier 1 starting number 8 these days? The Welsh need physical carriers in the pack to help them get on the front foot and make up for the loss of Haleigh Parkes at 12 and as such, I think that the team would benefit far more from Ross Moriarty or Josh Navidi (who should be nailed on as a starter) rather than Faletau. There is only so long that a player can be picked on past performances. To me, it is time for Faletau to earn his place back in the squad.

Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

With coronavirus fears causing Ireland’s game against Italy to be postponed, Round 4 of the Six Nations eventually kicked off at Twickenham with England’s match against Wales. Anthony Watson gave England an early lead, which was added to by Elliot Daly and the boot of Owen Farrell, the boots of Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar keeping Wales just in it for a 20-9 halftime score. Wales hit back immediately after the break with a try from Justin Tipuric, but a try for Manu Tuilagi helped England pull away, before the centre’s late red card and a yellow for Ellis Genge gave Wales a 2-man advantage, which allowed them to have the final say through tries for Dan Biggar and Tipuric again to come away with a losing bonus point, the 33-30 final score earning England the Triple Crown.

 

England

England may go down as the victors, but they came so close to shooting themselves in the foot with their poor discipline. A game between these two nations is always going to be a tetchy affair, but there were moments that England took things too far. Captain Owen Farrell saw him penalised on his own line for an unnecessary shove that sparked a brawl and was potentially lucky to not be penalised again shortly later for shoving over Dan Biggar while chasing a kick, while Joe Marler may find himself in hot water for trying to get to know Alun Wyn Jones a little too well during one scuffle. Then with less than 10 minutes left, Ellis Genge was yellow carded for persistent offending from the team and Manu Tuilagi was given a red card for a high shot on George North, which almost cost England the game as Wales scored 14 points in the final 5 minutes. Had they had another 5 minutes, I can’t help but feel that their numerical advantage would have seen them come away with the win.

10 penalties is too many for a team to give away if they want to win a game, England need to buck up their ideas if they want to improve their chances of success in the big games.

Wales

When I asked my friend Gez (a Wales fan who has contributed on some previous posts) what he thought of Wales’ performance, I got the following reply:

So we can score against 13 and can’t defend wide, narrow or against hard runners, that’s what we’ve learned here

While I fully agree that the defensive set-up needs looking at as it is allowing teams to get around them too easily, I think that Wales’ current situation needs remembering. They have just had a change in coaches so will take a moment to adapt to a new playing style, but came into this match missing a number of players who have played key roles in the team recently: Gareth Anscombe, Jonathan Davies, Tomas Francis, Josh Adams and Rhys Patchell. They also had Josh Navidi, Liam Williams, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Biggar (who I question if he as really even 95% fit) playing having recently returned from injury and had Jake Ball and Dillon Lewis go off injured during the game and Alun Wyn Jones, George North and Aaron Shingler finish the game in varying degrees of fitness. Further to that, there were other players like Owen Lane and Willis Haloholo out injured, who could have positively impacted the team.

Given that injury list, it is hard to look into Wales performance too much right now. Yes, big improvements are needed quickly if Wales want to start winning more, but it is important to not make any snap reactions now. Having a key partnership like hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies return (or even have Halaholo covering for one of these players) with a fully fit Josh Navidi in the back row will immediately make the middle of the park feel ore secure against big runners like a Manu Tuilagi, giving a better platform to build the defence off. If the issues persist with a team much closer to the ideal XV, then change will be needed.


My standout players

Manu Tuilagi‘s game may have ended on a negative, but his hard carrying helped put England on the front foot, while Anthony Watson looked great on his return from injury. Ben Youngs also put in one of his best performances in recent years, controlling the game and exploiting a number of gaps around the breakdown.

It was harder to pick out for Wales in a largely disappointing performance, but Josh Navidi clearly had a positive impact on his return from injury and lasted the full 80 minutes, while his return also appeared to free up Justin Tipuric to have more impact in the loose. Finally, a mention for Dan Biggar, who completed the full 80 minutes despite not appearing to be fully fit after his injury last weekend and did everything he could to keep Wales in the game, though it did feel like somewhat of a kick in the teeth to keep Jarrod Evans on the bench.

Six Nations 2020: Wales v France

Six Nations 2020: Wales v France

We reached the halfway point of the 2020 Six Nations on Saturday with France’s trip to Wales. France’s young guns came into this match with 2 victories under their belt and took an early lead as Wales’ failure to deal with a high ball led to Anthony Bouthier’s early try, while Paul Willemse crashed over from short range, Dan Biggar’s boot keeping Wales just in touch, with a 9-17 halftime score. Romain Ntamack added a try and a further 5 points off the tee, and though Dan Biggar replied with a try and conversion of his own, France managed to hold on in the final minutes and Camille Chat earned a penalty at the breakdown with the clock in the red to secure a 23-27 victory and keep their Grand Slam hopes alive.

Wales

Wayne Pivac had great success with the Scarlets playing an expansive gameplan, but it’s not quite clicked yet for Wales. In this match, the attack looked very poor. Despite fantastic attacking talents like Gareth Davies, Nick Tompkins, Johnny McNicholl and Josh Adams in the backs, the attack often looked panicky trying to deal with France’s blitz defence.

If Wales set up the breakdown, then France were often able to reset and blitz again, pushing the Welsh back, but the team cohesiveness was not there to keep the ball moving out of the tackle with the sheer number of offloads the team was trying to throw. To me, this came back to an issue that I think Wales have been finding of late: they do not have enough physical ball carriers. They certainly have players like Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, who will carry all day, but they are not going to push the gain line back in a way that for example the Irish pack of CJ Stander, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy and James Ryan will, which makes it hard for Wales to get on the front foot.

Right now, George North has become a shadow of the player he used to be and this latest concussion could be accelerating the end of his international career. Hadleigh Parkes is currently one of the only players regularly making metres in the tighter areas. Personally, I think that Ross Moriarty is being used in too much of a defensive role and a couple of late carries were a good reminder of how destructive he can be when allowed to carry in attack, while I also think that Taulupe Faletau is yet to reach anything near his best following his injury nightmares and so I think another stronger carrier like Aaron Wainwright would help this team create the platform that they are currently missing.

I will be interesting to see if any changes are made ahead of Round 4.

France

Last week I mentioned how Wales really seem to be missing Shaun Edwards, this week we got to see just how much France are benefiting from having him.

The French team are full of physical players through the pack and midfield, which combined with an organised blitz defence to continually push Wales back towards their own line, making a whopping 177 tackles over the 80 minutes. They are not yet the finished article as they are giving away more penalties than you would expect from a Shaun Edwards defence and maybe aren’t hitting the tackle completion percentages Edwards woudl want (they finished on 87%), but even when they were down to 14 men (on 2 occasions!) they defended admirably and rarely looked in real trouble.

This defence will just get better over the next couple of seasons as the players gain more international experience and get to spend more time with Edwards. This is a team on their way to being world-beaters.


My standout players

For Wales, the back row pairing of Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric put in strong defensive performances while also making some dangerous carries in attack, while Hadleigh Parkes once again Carried hard in midfield to try creating a platform for the team.

For France, Antoine Dupont and Man of the Match Romain Ntamack controlled the game almost perfectly, while Gaël Fickou actually appeared more involved from his left wing position than he had at centre the last few weeks. Meanwhile, fullback Anthony Bouthier answered the questions that the Welsh kicking game asked of him, while asking questions of his own and scoring an important early try.

A Big Decision for Wayne Pivac

A Big Decision for Wayne Pivac

Wayne Pivac is having some horrible luck in his early games in charge of Wales. Going into only his 4ᵗʰ match in Round 3 of the Six Nations, it looks like he may have only 1 fit fly half. But how did he get here and what are his options?

Falling like dominoes

Things were already going wrong at fly half for Pivac before he even took charge of the team, with Gareth Anscombe picking up a serious knee injury in the World Cup Warm-ups that will keep him out for the season. Going into the Six Nations, he also found himself missing Rhys Patchell, who is still recovering from shoulder surgery.

Then in Round 2 of the Six Nations, things reached breaking point for Wales as Dan Biggar went off in the first half for a HIA and didn’t return. With this being his 3ʳᵈ concussion in a short space of time (he suffered knocks in the World Cup against Australia and Fiji), they are understandably being careful in managing his recovery, putting his chances of passing the return to play protocols in time for this weekend’s match against France in doubt. That wasn’t all though as Gloucester fly half/centre Owen Williams, who has only recently returned from a long injury lay-off, tore his hamstring in the warm-up before the Ireland match.

This means that the only recognised fly half in the squad who is currently fit is 23-year-old Jarrod Evans, who has just a handful of caps to his name.

Calling for reinforcements

While this is a big opportunity for Evans, Wales need to call someone up to cover him from the bench. The big talk that has come up over the weekend is that Wayne Pivac will try to use the exceptional circumstances of having 4 fly halves injured to allow him to bring Rhys Priestland into the squad despite being based outside Wales and having less than the required 60 caps.

While Priestland is a quality player and brings so much experience, I don’t understand this decision form Pivac and hope that he is not allowed to call Priestland up. At 33, and playing for Bath, it is unlikely that he will gain any more caps once Biggar is back, so surely Pivac should take this as an opportunity to look at an eligible option who could look to put themselves in contention over the coming years.

Just a couple of years ago, Sam Davies was fighting with Dan Biggar for the number 10 jersey, but he fell out of favour and lost form. He made the decision to move to the Dragons rather than take a more lucrative option outside Wales, and at 26 he still has plenty of years of international rugby ahead of him. Picking Priestland ahead of him would be a kick in the teeth, whereas bringing him back into the fold, even if just for a match or 2, could be just what Davies needs to fire himself into contention moving forward.

Alternatively, Pivac could look to the West Country for a fly half who would be eligible. Bristol’s Callum Sheedy has played for Ireland U19s and Wales U16s, and has been a key part of the Bears’ recent success. At 24, he is just hitting his prime and would be a great addition to the squad. He has played for England, but that was in an uncapped XV, so he is still available for Wales. Bringing him in and getting him a cap now would be another one stolen from England hot on the heels of Nick Tompkins, while also all-but assuring that another talented fly half would be returning to Wales at the end of his current Bristol contract. It’s a win-win situation.

Finally, Pivac could look back to his old club, the Scarlets, for another young fly half he knows well: Dan Jones. I don’t think Jones would usually come into the international discussion, but desperate times call for desperate measures and his familiarity with the new Wales coaching staff’s tactics may just give the former Wales U20 stand-off an advantage coming in at the eleventh hour.

 

With 3 first choice 10s missing, Pivac will not be judged too harshly, so he should take the chance to add one of these 3 options to his squad to see what they could do. With at least 1 of his fly halves likely to be on the Lions Tour, he may need to look back to this player next summer, so he may as well get them in now.

Who would you call up if you were in Pivac’s position?

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Wales

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Wales

The 2ⁿᵈ weekend of the 2020 Six Nations kicked off with a match begin 2 of Round 1’s winning teams. Wales travelled to the Aviva Stadium, but after a close start they found themselves going behind after Jordan Larmour stepped his way through Nick Tompkins’ attempted tackle for the opening try. Tomos Williams soon crossed and Dan Biggar converted to give Wales the lead, but it was short-lived as Tadhg Furlong barrelled over to put the Irish back ahead. The second half saw the home team pull away with tries from Josh van der Flier and Andrew Conway either side of a disallowed Hadeigh Parkes try, while Justin Tipuric crossed with the final play of the game to make the final score of 24-14 look more respectable.

Ireland

For so long, Wales have been one of the best teams in the Northern Hemisphere when it comes to the breakdown. Though they had some success early in the game, it was generally as an Irish player found themselves isolated. When the breakdown became a contest, Ireland were largely dominant.

Perhaps it helps that they have an extremely physical pack and midfield when Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw are on the pitch, but whatever it is, it is hard to stop. I was critical of CJ Stander last season, but he has looked back to his best in these first 2 rounds and was the real stand-out player on Saturday. Every time Wales got something going, it felt like Stander was there bent over the man on the floor, winning the ball back or earning the Irish a penalty. Yes, he was pinged a couple of times, resulting in a late yellow card, but even a couple of those decisions were very close (by the standards that you see at every other breakdown, even if technically the calls were correct).

With Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony taking responsibility for the majority of the tackling in the back row, it allows Stander to focus on winning the ball back. The one thing this back row does lack though is significant carrying metres. It will be interesting to see how the back row’s performance changes if Caelan Doris is given that starting spot back in favour of Peter O’Mahony in Round 3.

Wales

While the big talk has been about the change of head coach from Warren Gatland to Wayne Pivac, what probably hasn’t been discussed enough is the loss of Shaun Edwards to France. Byron Hayward may be a great coach, but he is replacing arguably one of the best defensive coaches in the game and it will take time for him to settle at international level. His case certainly isn’t helped either by having some key personnel like Jonathan Davies missing.

While it is still early days, it looks like the defensive organisation needs a lot of work over the next couple of weeks. I can’t remember the last time I saw the team defend so narrow!Right from the opening minutes, Ireland were finding joy spreading the ball wide and getting around the edge of the Welsh defensive line. I can’t help wonder if this was the case against Italy as well, but just not as obvious as the Italians allowed the defence to drift better.

Why did they defend like this? Had they predicted a tighter game due to the predicted adverse weather conditions? Were they trying to defend super narrow to deal with the physicality of the Irish pack and midfield? Or is Hayward seriously miscalculating his players’ ability to cover the width of the pitch effectively from a narrow starting point?

With France up next and likely coming in off the back of 2 wins with one of the most dangerous back lines in the competition, Wales need to sort their defence out quickly.


My standout players

As I’ve already mentioned, CJ Stander was superb in his defensive work and is really looking back to his best.

Jordan Larmour continues to look assured in the starting lineup and appears to ave made the 15 shirt his own, while his fellow back 3 member Andrew Conway appears to be doing the same with the 14 shirt, putting in a great 2-way performance and making some fantastic clearing kicks.

While Wales had a poor day, Alun Wyn Jones put in another majestic performance, completing 22/23 tackles while also playing an important role in the attack with some strong carrying and deft offloads.

Hadleigh Parkes also looked back to his best after an injury-disrupted World Cup, putting in a strong defensive performance and also being the team’s primary carrier with 16 carries for 27 metres.

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Italy

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Italy

The 2020 Six Nations kicked off on Saturday in Cardiff with a match between Wales and Italy. Both teams were early in the process of moving on from the Rugby World Cup with new men at the helm in Wayne Pivac and interim head coach Franco Smith respectively.

Wales came in with a number of players missing through injury, leading to George North making a rare appearance at outside centre, but they made the better start and found themselves taking an early lead with 3 penalties from the boot of Dan Biggar (my thoughts are with everyone who picked Leigh Halfpenny as their fantasy kicker this weekend) before adding 2 tries through Josh Adams. Italy fought hard but the closest they could come to scoring was at the end of the half when their 5m catch and drive lineout was dealt with. In the second half, it was all Wales, as the men in red added a further 2 tries through debutant Nick Tompkins and George North, before Josh Adams finished off his hat-trick with the final play of the game to complete a 42-0 victory.

Wales

This may have ended up a comfortable victory for Wales, but there will certainly be some things that they look at ahead of next week. The Italian scrum has not looked great in recent years, so to see it look so strong in this game makes me feel that it is in part due to Wales’ weakness in this area, something that hurt them in the latter half of last season.

Wyn Jones has looked strong at loosehead of late, moving ahead of Rob Evans and Nicky Smith, but he had a torrid time against Andrea Lovotti. Meanwhile on the other side of the scrum, things look a lot bleaker when Tomas Francis is unavailable. I think that it’s time for Sale’s WillGriff John to be given a shot in the national team.

Similarly, there were some issues for Wales at the lineout. Ken Owens is a fantastic servant for Wales but overthrew one lineout and had another throw pinged for not being straight. There was also another moment when Wales gave away a free kick for not setting up properly.

Between the scrums and the lineouts, this is an area of the game that Wales need to try and tighten up. They may have got away with it against Italy, but issues on your own set piece in a tight game are going to put you in a very difficult position.

Italy

As someone who frequently argues that Italy deserve a spot in top tier competition, watching them play can be a chore at times.

Going into this match, I was interested to see how Italy would fare with a dual-playmaker system of Tommaso Allan at 10 and Carlo Canna at 12. While they certainly got the ball moving more than in some recent matches and made almost 400m with the ball, their attack still looked horribly stifled and to be honest, I don’t think the system worked for them.

Though they had 2 playmakers, there was very little being done in the Italian attacking line to create space and break the defensive line in midfield. When you watch many teams, there will be players running crash balls or dummy runners, however watching Italy, it often felt like this was missing and that Italy were just playing the ball along the line, meaning that the defence was able to drift on them. The back rowers and forward runners did some good work but it was usually limited to just one pass out from the ruck. In players like Jake Polledri, Seb Negri, Braam Steyn and Niccolo Cannone, Italy have a great set of ball carriers who they need to take advantage of in midfield. A player like Polledri could cause some real trouble if he can break through the defensive line in the centre of the pitch, while the players needed to defend against him as a dummy runner would create space for Luca Morisi, Mattia Bellini and Matteo Minozzi.

Personally, I would like to see Jayden Hayward promoted to the XV in place of Carlo Canna, as I think that his ability as a fullback still gives him some playmaking ability, but also adds a bit more physicality to help give the midfield more of a presence.


My standout players

Wayne Pivac finds himself in a great place when it comes to selecting scrum halves. Gareth Davies has been a star at the position of late and Rhys Webb is a former British & Irish Lion who will get even better once he is playing regular rugby again. But after his performance this weekend, I think that Pivac should stick with Tomos Williams for the next match. He controlled the game well in his hour on the pitch, but was also a livewire in the loose, and was one unfortunate bounce away from crossing the whitewash himself.

Josh Adams was the top try scorer at the Rugby World Cup and his hat-trick has put him in a great place to take that same award in this tournament. He may not have had many chances to stretch his legs, but he took his opportunities and is becoming a permanent fixture in the starting XV.

Finally, I want to take a moment to look at Nick Tompkins. As an England fan, I was gutted to see England ignore him and so happy to see his quality noticed by the Wales coaches. He came off the bench for a brief cameo in the first half and in that time managed to win a turnover and unleash Leigh Halfpenny (to set up Josh Adams’ opener) with a pass that looked simple but would not be as easy to execute in the moment. Coming back on later in the game, he proved that the strong start was not a fluke as he immediately looked like someone with 20+ caps to his name, slotting in comfortably at both 12 & 13 and deservedly scoring on his debut. While George North performed admirably at 13, I think the back line looked better with Topkins involved and would love to see him promoted to the starting XV next week.