So, a distinctly underwhelming Six Nations is over, we’re all another year older, and the Promised Land looks as distant as ever. Thank God for Italy and Ireland, who pulled off the two most entertaining results of the championship; the rest of it was all pretty hard to digest.
Wales started their last game with an outside shot at winning the Championship, and they finished it in fourth place – as clear a sign as any of how little there was to choose between the top four sides. It was almost all so mediocre, though – England showed the most adventure over the course of the season and deserved their win, Ireland came to life to make up for BallBoyGate, and that was just about it in terms of real quality.
Wales now have four games to fine-tune the side before the World Cup – unfortunately, it looks as though we need a fair bit more than just fine-tuning. So, where is it going wrong, and what can realistically change before we fly to the other side of the world?
Our side-to-side slugfest. This is a busted flush – it isn’t working any more, and there are several reasons why. First up, it is so dreadfully predictable. This allows defences to maintain their organisation far too easily, and gives teams something of a comfort zone against us. Second, it has become a largely pointless activity – there is some obvious value in taking the point of contact as wide as possible if you’re going to attack using the full width of the pitch, but if all you’re going to do is work from one side of the pitch to the other over the course of several fairly slow rucks, there really is no particular value in having started an extra five metres closer to the line. Finally, Irish sleepiness apart, it has removed any possible surprise value in using the blindside, as more than one of our players discovered against France when they found themselves the single blindside attacker against three or four defenders.
Our error count. Even with a predictable gameplan, we would have been right in the mix for a potential Grand Slam this season if our error count had been under control – but it isn’t. Time and again, we do the donkey work, build some momentum, get some field position and then cough the ball up in the tackle, or give it to a static runner who gets pinged for holding on, or try one pass too many. In the last half an hour against France, Bradley Davies got stripped in contact because he was far too upright, Alun Wyn Jones tried a miracle pass of the kind that he was sensibly NOT making in the first half, Ryan Jones took attacking ball standing still and got pinged for holding on, Hibbard lost the ball in contact – and given that you’re always going to get some calls against you, that’s already enough mistakes to leave any side seriously hamstrung.
THE (POTENTIALLY) GOOD
We’ve got the platform there, of a kind. The scrum has held up reasonably well even without our two first choice props, the lineout has definitely improved (although it would be a bloody delight to see one of our forwards pinching opposition ball as consistently as Richie Gray did against Italy), and our back row have done outstanding work in defence for most of the season. We’ve got some genuine strike runners who are particularly dangerous in broken play, and we’re obviously not a team that flags physically in the last quarter any more.
SO WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE?
We desperately need at least a little more variety. Once we’ve taken the ball out to the touchline, the next couple of phases almost invariably go to Dan Lydiate to take contact. Oh, okay, it’s not always Lydiate, and he usually does a good job of it when it is, but I’m sure you take the point. Yes, you’ve got to be prepared to do the work to tie defenders in; but if you’re dead set on going out to the touchline, why not try to use that full width of the pitch oh, just once or twice in each half? We’ve got the players to do some damage one-on-one or two-on-two if they’ve got enough space, and if we lie deep and sometimes attack the outside of the pitch instead of just looking for contact on the gainline, it will have the added bonus of making it a bit less bleedingly obvious when we do take route one.
Speed of thought. We talk about how fit we are as though it was still the deciding factor it seemed to be in 2008 – but we play an attacking game which gives the opposition plenty of time to align, and doesn’t ask them to cover all that much of the park. If we think that we can run the opposition off their feet, then we need to play fast rugby, to change the point of attack frequently and quickly, and to keep the ball in hand as much as possible. This is about patterns more than about individuals (if you’ve got the time, take a look at the French game from 59:55 to 64:00 and then 66:47 to 69:43 and you’ll see that there’s not all that much to choose between Phillips and Peel when the forwards retain possession for a while) – but having said that, Peel does have the edge in speed and quality of delivery, and it will be a ridiculous error of judgement if he doesn’t get the shirt for at least one of the summer matches. Wales might be able to play a faster game with Peel at 9, but there’ll be no way of seeing that for sure unless he gets a start.
Aggression. Not just at ruck and maul, but across the board, and in terms of our attacking intent. The way this team performs makes it look as though Gatland wants to see us play a percentage game; but a game plan based on a strong defence coupled with a predictable attack is actually quite risky rugby, because it means we need a very low error count to be able to take control of a game. Two errors meant two tries in Paris, and it would be a brave man who would bet on this Welsh team producing error-free performances in New Zealand. If we’re going to make mistakes, we need to be able to put points on the board a lot more quickly ourselves – and that takes us back to speed of play and varying the point of attack again.
THE OPTIMISM GNOME COMMENTS
It’s all pretty small margins at the top of the game. Our ‘not turning up mentally’ in Paris saw France take two soft tries from two unnecessary mistakes – take those out of the equation, and we unquestionably had enough opportunities to have won the game, even with the error count as it was.
There isn’t a great deal that needs to change. We’ve got a platform that will see us get a decent amount of possession in our pool games – we just need to be a bit more threatening on our own ball, which we can do by changing the point of attack a bit more often, and taking the ball wide, fast, just occasionally.
We’ve produced strong performances against all the Tri Nations sides in the last year. Our bang-your-head-against-the-door-until-it-breaks style of play will beat Samoa and Fiji with something to spare – so the truth of it is that we will get two rolls of the dice in New Zealand. If we can find a win from somewhere against either South Africa or Australia, this team might grow up in a hurry.
[Probable Wales route to the final: Group runners-up, beat an Ireland made over-confident by their unexpected win against Australia, beat a Scotland made over-confident and quite possibly hallucinatory by their unexpected wins over England, Argentina and France, to lose to New Zealand in the final by 30 points and/or 2 points after an All Black forward wins a penalty in the last minute of the game by throwing himself out of a lineout.]