Super Saturday 2017 will be remembered by Welsh fans for all the wrong reasons. The day had begun with an enjoyable watch; Scotland scoring tries and Italy managing to butcher their opportunities. It ended with England lifting the RBS Six Nations trophy in defeat. What happened in the middle still defies belief.
Following the rousing victory against Ireland in Cardiff the Welsh team headed to Paris looking for a third win in a row in the French capital and a sixth successive victory since that devastating 8-9 loss at Eden Park in 2011. In a frenetic opening half the men in red rode their luck. France flew at them in attack but only scored a single try. The second half was much of the same with Wales defending manfully but failing to create any try scoring opportunities for themselves. In fact the skill levels from both teams were some of the worst seen in a Six Nations match for years.
Although ineffectual with ball in hand, Leigh Halfpenny was the master of the kicking tee. With mentor Neil Jenkins watching on, Halfpenny produced a virtuoso kicking clinic worthy of Jinks himself. Six penalties from six attempts, including three notable efforts from barely inside the French half, gave Wales the lead. Although Welsh players all too often coughed up possession in promising positions through sloppy handling and breakdown work, their tactics were paying off.
Those tactics were to have a high ball in play time. The monstrous French pack was being forced to work hard with kicks staying on the field of play. Even the French backline of behemoths were having their fitness tested. This strategy drew penalties from the French allowing Halfpenny to add to the scoreboard. A tentative 5 point lead might’ve been enough but Wales were hanging on by their fingernails. Injuries were piling up too with both Alun Wyn Jones and Jake Ball having to leave the field. Scott Baldwin also had blood pouring from his head meaning Ross Moriarty who had gone off holding his shoulder was pressed into service once again. Needing a converted try to win it, France were knocking at the Welsh tryline as normal time drew to a close. Then things got absurd.
France were pressing for the crucial try. In their desperation to hold out the French the Welsh players were conceding penalties and it was obvious that scrums were going to follow. However the contest at the scrum had gone from France being totally dominant to a more even battle following the front row changes from both teams. Curiously referee Wayne Barnes came over to the French tighthead Antonio and asked, “Are you injured?” The response was that he had a sore back but was fine to go again. Out of nowhere a French medic then appeared. Smelling a rat Barnes directly asked, “As a Doctor are you telling me that this player needs a head injury assessment?” To which the referee was given a resounding “yes!”
As a prelude to this was the expected set of scrums and resets. But to counter this the French were somehow allowed to bring back on their first choice tighthead prop Slimani. He solidified the French scrum, putting pressure on Rob Evans by illegally binding on his arm. Things were complicated further when Barnes branded a yellow card to Samson Lee. This was inevitable given the penalties being conceded so close to the try line. Confusion then reigned as Thomas Francis had to rejoin the fray with debate raging over whether paperwork stated he had been replaced or substituted. Perhaps he should’ve run on the pitch at full pace and pulled his hamstring! The whole episode proved once and for all the shambolic nature of scrums at the highest level of the game. Although safety is paramount the resets and prolonged debate over who should be involved was nothing but a joke. Then things got even worse!
Shortly after a defensive effort George North approached the referee brandishing his arm claiming he had been bitten. Barnes referred it to his TMO stating that there was clearly a mark. In the stadium only one angle was shown to Barnes. The TMO Peter Fitzgibbon stated that there was nothing conclusive. I would frankly be astounded if the French broadcaster provided Fitzgibbon all the available angles at that crucial moment. Again Barnes could only go on what he was being told and washed his hands of the situation saying it would be dealt with after the match. Surely however teeth marks on an arm are pretty damning evidence.
To add to the ludicrousness of the situation a French player suggested that North had done it himself. Astonishingly French boss Guy Noves was quoted as repeating this accusation. If that’s true then Noves should be ashamed. Wether an incident of biting did occur or not we will have to wait and see. But to claim North did it to himself is embarrassing. Eventually the red wall gave way. But it took entering the 100th minute of the game for that defence to be broken. To the skeptics amongst us French Fergie-time meant that this game was surely destined to continue until France scored. But the final whistle just began the fallout.
A furious Dan Biggar walked off the field before rightly being sent back by Howley to shake hands. Alun Wyn Jones was quickly nabbed by the BBC for comment but skilfully avoided using the word ‘cheat’. The WRU coaches refused media duties until they reviewed the footage. Martyn Williams working for BBC television said that he’d seen Slimani warming up minutes before Antonio’s mysterious sore back needed a head injury assessment. When Rob Howley did speak he suggested that French officials had left the technical area to relay a message to the Doctor, presumably to remove Antonio from the field which happened moments later. This story will inevitably run and run. Personally I wanted a camera on Shaun Edwards because I imagine he’d have been losing his mind with rage. For all their defensive efforts the Wales players did not deserve to lose in that manner.
The controversy in Paris, tentatively labelled ‘HIAgate’, must not be allowed to overshadow a disappointing Six Nations campaign. During the autumn the coaches clung to the straw of 3 wins from 4 in the face of poor performances and a lack of tries. Now there is no hiding. 2 wins from 5 and a fifth placed finish is unacceptable for this squad. Mercifully the potential calamity of falling out of the top 8 in world rankings for the Rugby World Cup draw was avoided. They raised their performances for the big home games against England and Ireland but were embarrassing in the second half against the Scots. Wales were the only nation not to score four tries against a poor Italy and although they played for 100 minutes in Paris didn’t look like scoring a try. The development of a new attacking game was nowhere to be seen.
Now the Six Nations is over attention turns to the Lions tour. Worryingly Rob Howley will be the backs coach and seems unlikely that in less time with players he’s never worked with before he can instil a spectacular offensive game to challenge the world champion All Blacks. That squad will however have plenty of quality players with England, Ireland and Scotland all going to contribute talent. From a Welsh perspective Rhys Webb and George North have impressed in attack during the tournament. Leigh Halfpenny would be a priceless goal kicker to have in the squad. Sam Warburton, freed from the burden of captaincy, has been outstanding as has Justin Tipuric. Alun Wyn Jones could be a captaincy contender and Ken Owens has also come from nowhere to become a genuine contender for a test shirt.
The rest of the Welsh squad are likely to go on tour to Tonga and Samoa with interim-interim coach Robin McBryde. This will be largely futile but will be an opportunity for fringe players to get caps. When Gatland and Howley return I fear a Graham Henry style reaction. When he returned from Lions duty in 2001 Henry was faced with Welsh players perturbed by losing out on selection to better English and Irish individuals. The changing room was lost and history could be about to repeat itself. Gatland, having been on sabbatical for a year, will have a difficult job to reunite an underperforming squad and then turn them into genuine World Cup contenders.