Wales’ Six Nations ends with 100 minute farce

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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!”

IMG_0430As 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!

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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.

IMG_0423To 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.

IMG_0429A 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.

IMG_0428The 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.

imageNow 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.

Wales defy critics to deliver Ireland win

The backlash from Wales’ appalling second half performance in Scotland has been pretty brutal. A season of discontent boiled over with Welsh fans frustrated and desperately seeking change. Whilst the atmosphere in the Principality Stadium was sure to be electric, the build up had seen tickets going spare across the country. Disillusioned supporters, anticipating another defeat and fearing Friday night traffic and transport chaos, were voting with their feet. What they missed out on was a classic. An epic contest between two old rivals and, quite unexpectedly, a vintage Welsh performance.

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When the starting lineup was announced earlier in the week Welsh fans despaired. Players who underperformed at Murrayfield were simply given the shirt again and told “must do better”. There was seemingly no comeuppance for poor showings. The reality was that Scotland have progressed to the stage that they comfortably beat the men in red for the first time in ten years. Ireland have beaten the All Blacks this season, no one else can say that. And England are closing in on a world record winning streak. Rugby fans in Wales are very aware of what’s going on in the world. They watch rugby regularly and so can see these shifts. They’re selfish too and want their team to be enjoying that success. With Wales not winning a Six Nations title since 2013 the natives are understandably going to be restless. However Friday nights match saw a return of the Wales that last one the title.

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Built upon the foundations of huge physicality, Wales bludgeoned the Irish forwards, and crucially their half back combination, into submission. Anointed Lions pairing Connor Murray and Jonathan Sexton were battered and some distance away from the armchair ride they would’ve hoped to enjoy. This physicality was a return to the style which won Wales championships a few years ago; ‘Warrenball’ based upon power and intensity. The defensive efforts were brutal with big hits coming in from both sides. Yet Wales refused to yield and defended their line manfully, succeeding in keeping the Irish out. Often an Achilles heel, Wales’ line out was not only accurate but also won crucial turnovers of Irish possession. Their attack was also equally effective.

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Having had a very public boot up the backside George North carried the ball like a man possessed. The wrecking ball on the right wing powered through green jerseys, constantly looked for work and was suitably rewarded with two tries. His first score was exactly the attacking play that Wales failed to convert against Scotland and in other games during the autumn. From the initial line break Rhys Webb ran an impressive support line to take the offload. Passing was then accurate and North plowed over to his clear relief. The second was an impressive example of simple ‘heads up’ rugby that took advantage of the extra man. Vitally important to efforts out wide were those up front with the back row battle proving to be a colossal contest. Warburton versus CJ Stander in particular was utterly engrossing to watch. Both must surely be Lions tourists in the summer. As the two flankers epitomised there was little between the sides and despite what the scoreline suggests this game could’ve gone either way.

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The turning point of the match was clearly when an Irish maul was marching towards the Welsh line only for Robbie Henshaw’s influence to cost his team a certain try. Henshaw clearly joined the maul ahead of Rory Best who had possession of the ball. It was an easy call for referee Wayne Barnes although Jon Davies did point it out for him too. It was a decision that came at a crucial time with the score at 15-9. Had the try been awarded Ireland would’ve had a conversion kick to go into the lead heading into the last ten minutes. Who knows what might’ve happened then. Instead Irish players heads went down as they seem to concede defeat with their chance blown. Jamie Roberts’ charge down third try sealed the deal.

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Whilst the win proves that Wales were simply a good team playing poorly, the future remains a concern. With few new caps and talent coming through, a World Cup challenge in 2019 will depend largely on this group of players. Inconsistency is the main worry with Wales capable of raising their game for big matches at home but not equalling those performances away from the home comforts of Cardiff. Even the reliable Leigh Halfpenny has slipped in his standards. He has missed shots at goal and hasn’t scored an international try for a very long time. Most startling have been some of the glaring handling errors made in the last two games that are very unlike the Halfpenny of 2013.

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Although Wales gave their fans a positive victory that few predicted, none of them were willing to allow it to paper over the cracks. Preventing the men in red slipping out of the top 8 of the world rankings was a must. Another pool of death at the 2019 World Cup would’ve been a disaster. Victory also vindicated Rob Howley’s decision to keep the same team and resist the calls for change. However the public are still clamouring for consistency and an attacking game that will threaten the top teams. Effective as it was, last night’s performance would not have dampened the disquiet. If the team can deliver more scores akin to George North’s first, combine that attacking game with a disciplined defence and accurate set pieces then Wales can finally challenge New Zealand. This will require consistent results and not just single performances at home.

The final challenge of the Six Nations is a trip to Paris. Perhaps only then will we have a better idea if the Ireland win was a one-off regression to ‘Warrenball’ or a sign of genuine progression that will lead to better things.

Scotland surpass stagnant Wales

img_0401It had been ten years since the Welsh rugby team had lost to their Scottish counterparts at international level. There were young children in the stands of Murrayfield who had never seen Scotland beat Wales. This all changed yesterday following a dismal second half performance from the men in red and confirmed that the Scottish resurgence seen against Ireland was not a mere flash in the pan. The result proved symbolic of a drastic change in fortunes. The Scots are thriving and full of confidence. Wales however are stagnant and devoid of ideas.

Scotland have been building nicely since the development of the talismanic Stuart Hogg. A few years ago he was a wild hot head who got himself sent off, left to watch on as Wales racked up the tries. Armed with this new found maturity, his pace and skill are now gaining Scotland tries instead. His ability to deliver a perfect pass in front of the receiver put Tim Visser over for the crucial match winning try. Wales proved their ability to deliver passes with Liam Williams’ try. That however was a rare highlight. All too often Welsh players were throwing unsympathetic offloads, leading to dropped balls and turnovers. This lack of skills is gravely concerning from professional players. Even Leigh Halfpenny dropped a seemingly safe ball 40 seconds into the second half that proved a sign of things to come.

img_0403It has been levelled at this Welsh team that they’ve spent too long in the gym and not enough time working on their skills. Rugby is so often a simple game where basic skills done well can heap rich rewards. The Welsh team have tried to address these issues with the blunt bludgeon of Jamie Roberts being replaced by the more composed distributor Scott Williams. A seemingly wise decision as Roberts came on and threw one particularly dreadful pass. In contrast Finn Russell and Hogg combined with two perfect passes to put Tim Visser over which made the Welsh defensive line look like they weren’t even there. However it’s not just the lack of skill from the Welsh players which is troubling, it’s the absence of attacking intelligence.

img_0402Wales were undone by dummy runners for Scotland’s first try by Tommy Seymour. This came with the tenth phase but yet the Scots still had the ability to deliver a backs move. Wales showed against England that they can pull off backs moves on first phase. But after one ruck Wales become horrendously predictable. One off runners. Side to side play. Waiting for a missed tackle or a back running against a forward rather than creating something themselves. As a defensive team you only need to match Wales’ physicality to contain them. Alex King came in recently after being deemed surplus to requirements at a Northampton team who were also misfiring. In the autumn it was Matt Sherratt but he’s gone back to Cardiff Blues. Yet with Rob Howley also supposedly a backs coach, a role he’ll be taking on for the Lions this summer, the Welsh team are simply not creating and crucially scoring tries. Two backs coaches and a talented backline however still cannot produce five pointers. This is not a new problem with Wales fans still bemused how they couldn’t score against 13 Wallabies in the World Cup. Scotland showed how it can be done and it won them the game.

img_0404Wales had chances with Rhys Webb notably close to a try. However even that had not been created by Wales but the scrum half instinctively reacting to a loose ball. Outside of that Wales coughed up the ball, threw wild inaccurate passes or were so predictable in their carrying that the Scots could target the ball and win turnovers. Wales did go for a try to take the lead, dismissing the chance to level the score but that decision itself gave a worrying glimpse of dissent in the camp.

Something is seriously wrong in the Welsh team when players start overruling their captain. John Lacey had already pointed at the posts so probably should’ve enforced Alun Wyn Jones’ decision. But the vocal Dan Biggar seemingly overruled and declared he was going for the corner. It proved an error as Wales messed up the formation of the maul and the chance was lost. The attitude of Biggar has been commented on before and once again referee Lacey had to have a word with him instructing him to keep his opinions to himself. Liam Williams is another one. Whilst you expect it from a scrum half, this football style of appealing for decisions has crept into the Welsh squad with players regularly flapping their arms calling for a decision. It’s as if they are hoping for the referee to bail them out of trouble. This is not only troubling from a disciplinary perspective but also casts doubt on Alun Wyn Jones’ ability to lead the team by being the dominant voice of authority.

Whilst Scotland now have a trip to Twickenham to challenge England for their title Wales will go another season without silverware. It’s four years since the 2013 championship, five by the time the next tournament rolls round next year. Have Wales developed since that epic 30-3 win? Clearly not.

img_0400With the exception of the front row the majority of the starting lineup and the coaching setup is largely the same. All the other home nations have improved. England are on a winning run, Ireland beat the All Blacks for the first time ever and Scotland have now defeated Wales for the first time in a decade. Those teams have progressed but Wales have stood still. Only major change can solve this problem. It needs to be both on and off the pitch. Wales go up against title chasing Ireland next then face a daunting trip to Paris against a hugely physical French team. Perhaps it will take two defeats in those games to trigger the long overdue reaction. We do however seem to have returned to an era where Wales players can beat Italy and raise their game for England but the rest are simply leaving us behind.

At a crucial point where rankings will dictate the 2019 World Cup draw, Wales’ decline is not only costing them this season but a future challenge at the ultimate prize.

Images courtesy of @SixNationsRugby on Twitter

Wales 16 – England 21

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Despite all the hyperbole in the build-up, the contest surpassed expectations. It was physical but had no incidents of the predicted yellow and red card avalanche foreseen before the tournament. Even more unexpectedly both teams actually threw the ball around and tried to score tries. It made for a classic encounter for two legendary foes.

img_0376There was so much to enjoy and discuss. Wales produced one of their best performances in the Six Nations for years and it was heartbreaking for them to lose it at the death. The effort from the forward pack was immense, matching and getting the edge on their English counterparts. Ross Moriarty stood out with some bone crushing hits, including a shot on Owen Farrell that was a bit late. Credit to the Englishman he didn’t make a fuss. Got his breath back and carried on with the game. Jake Ball, with a face full of stitches, carried hard. Ken Owens hit all his lineouts. The scrum was solid and unlucky on a few referee calls. Alun Wyn Jones, Warburton and Tipuric gave everything as usual with some particularly crucial turnovers. For England Dylan Hartley was entirely anonymous, his most recent ban costing him crucial match fitness. Launchbury and Lawes carried and tackled themselves into the ground whilst Clifford and Itoje engaged in a fascinating battle with the more experienced Welsh flankers. But yet for all the Welsh effort up front it was, as is often the case, the backs which proved the difference.

img_0375Whilst the Welsh backline crafted a stunning try from first phase for Liam Williams they failed to take the opportunity of strong territorial positions. England however were clinical. George Ford had been highlighted as a defensive weakness, his lack of stature made for easy yardage gains. However his ability to time a pass and put a player in a hole more than made up for those inadequacies. The game will of course will be remembered for the final moments as Elliot Daly scored to seal the win. Wales had defended heroically on their line twice during the second half. It was what they did after that which proved their undoing. Firstly, Dan Biggar’s interception and dash up field was undone with the freshly introduced Scott Baldwin botching the subsequent lineout throw. Similarly Jonathan Davies failed to find the touchline from a relieving kick at a time when Wales needed to regroup and reorganise at a set piece. This then exposed the unfortunate Alex Cuthbert.

img_0377Running alongside the debate over whether the stadium roof would be open or not was the saga concerning George North. Having suffered a dead leg in Rome, but still having the ability to run in a try from distance, North looked unlikely to make the England game. Whilst the Welsh coaching team were perfectly within their rights to name him in the team and pull him out an hour before kickoff it stank of the childish shenanigans which England coach Eddie Jones had predicted. Equally predictable was that Alex Cuthbert, North’s designated replacement, was going to have his head in his hands at some point against England. Unfortunately for Wales it occurred at the very end as his inability to get Daly into touch cost Wales a victory they deserved given their efforts.

It is hard not to feel sorry for Alex Cuthbert. He tries hard and when he makes an error he looks close to tears. For instance when he lost the ball in contact, coughing up possession at an important time. Unfortunately he lacks basic rugby nouse but with the ball he runs hard, fast and straight which during 2013 proved enough. But how often since then have we seen tries conceded in that corner of the pitch when he is on the field? They have been in crucial moments such as against South Africa in the Rugby World Cup, flapping high with his hands rather than dipping his shoulder in. Yesterday he got caught in field giving Daly the outside space to accelerate into and once again flapped high instead of going in forcefully and taking the Englishman’s feet into touch. The reality is that he should never have been put in that position, not just because Jon Davies should’ve put the ball out but because of staggering ineptitude from the Welsh management.

img_0378Cuthbert has been let down by his bosses. Short on confidence and desperate to just do something right he shouldn’t be continually thrust into the glare of international rugby where criticism and sadly abuse are sure to follow. He should be spared this by those responsible for picking the team. Despite what people say Wales were not short of other options. Stef Evans might’ve been a long shot to start such a big game but Sam Davies, Gareth Anscombe or Matthew Morgan, who scored a superb counterattacking try against Bristol recently, could’ve covered fullback and allowed Leigh Halfpenny to cover on the wing. However this lack of thought is highly indicative of a management team who seem to make substitutions based on the time on the match clock alone.

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With Ross Moriarty and Ken Owens flying it was of the astonishment of most that they were withdrawn from the action. Whilst you can understand a desire to get consistently strong performer Talupe Faletau on the field it seemed an odd call to take Moriarty off when he was standing out as a man of the match contender. Similarly Gareth Davies coming on for the controlling influence of Rhys Webb smacked of a decision which ignored events on the field. Scott Baldwin’s immediate impact was to deliver an abysmal lineout throw which had it hit the right target could’ve helped Wales seal the game. Jamie Roberts came on for Scott Williams and was understandably not immediately up to the pace of the game which caused a defensive error. The mind boggles why Cory Hill came on for Tipuric with moments to go particularly given Warburton was apparently carrying an injury. Given the seemingly equally matched players on the field it was perhaps those in the stands that proved the difference. All of England’s replacements made a positive impact and improved their teams performance. Wales’ changes cost the team momentum and ultimately the match.

Also kick off times: why did the match kick off at the 16.50? What’s wrong with 5pm? Similarly why did Italy v Ireland have a start time of 14.25? Dictated by television coverage no doubt.

Images courtesy of @SixNationsRugby on Twitter