Sport writer Dan Allen investigates what went wrong and what needs to change for Wales to mount a challenge for the RBS Six Nations.
For all the pre-match hype, Wales’s showing on Friday night was a sobering one. Wales started the match with an intensity that reflected the grandiose pre-game antics. But once the blood and thunder of the opening 10 minutes relented, they found themselves squeezed out of the game by a well-drilled English side.
There is no doubt England played well but it the lack of a big performance from Wales is most troubling for the national side. Despite ending the first half with an eight-point cushion, with hindsight, Wales were never really convincing.
Taulupe Faletau’s handling and offload for Rhys Webb’s opening try was sublime. But what was tangible was the fact the Welsh tight-five were driven backwards as he scooped up the ball – his brilliance covered up a weak scrum. In international rugby you’re only ever as good as your set piece. And Wales made it extremely difficult for themselves when the pack constantly shunted backwards at scrum time and were dominated in the line-out.
Wales lost their own ball in four out of 14 line-outs and two out of eight scrums. Stats like that don’t often come from test match winning teams. With the ball in hand, the men in red were not much better. Much has been made of Gatland’s “Warrenball” and its effectiveness or, in Friday’s case, lack of. We have all seen giants Jamie Roberts, George North, Alex Cuthbert and company physically dominate opposition back-lines. But on Friday they struggled to make any ground.
There is certainly an argument that, under Gatland, Wales have become predictable. Teams know what they are going to get. England had clearly prepared for a hard, direct running game, with plenty of kicking from hand and that is what Wales gave them. As England started to dominate the match, nothing appeared to change in Gatland’s game plan. This is what must change for Wales, not just for the rest of the tournament but also for the world cup later this year.
World Class? Leigh Halfpenny
Still, however poor Wales were by their own standards, there is no need to panic. This is a team full of Lions stars who, let us not forget, beat South Africa less than three months ago. Wales’s first 15 is littered with world class players, from Alun Wyn Jones to Leigh Halfpenny and Jamie Roberts, who has been in scintillating form recently. Players of this calibre do not become poor overnight. But at Murrayfield against a rejuvenated Scotland under Vern Cotter, they will face a stern test.
They cannot afford to be so one dimensional again. Gatland must work on ways to change up attacking play with his players. If a side prepares to nullify their standard power game there must be something else to bring an element of surprise. Yet, there is no need for this Welsh squad to try and change their DNA. They are built to play the way they do, with big power runners used as battering rams to bully opposition into submission. And this can still work. But direct style relies on a solid set piece and quick ball as a foundation, meaning Wales must execute the basics better in order to impose themselves on the Scots this weekend.
With only four regions playing top-level rugby, Wales are not a side blessed with depth, yet there are still players who can offer something different. Liam Williams is an exciting player in electric form who offers a more swashbuckling alternative to a brutish back-line. With, George North a doubt after his concussion and Alex Cuthbert largely ineffective, he certainly has a case for inclusion.
Thought should also be given to Justin Tipuric whose partnership with Sam Warburton in the back row tormented England last time the sides met. Wales must stay calm. With a few tweaks, this side still has much to offer.
Looking ahead to Sunday’s clash Wales are still sweating on the fitness of Samson Lee. The front-row forward is suffering from concussion and will under go further tests before returning to training this week.
Despite suffering two heavy blows to the head on Friday, Wales are confident North will be fit to face Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday.
Gatland will sweat on the fitness of Samson Lee