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Off the ropes

Owain Jones

Confidence. It’s that intangible in sport you can’t touch or feel. It’s also something that will have been a brittle commodity to Welsh players in the last 15 months. Their win record for 2020, two wins (over Georgia and Italy) and seven losses (two each to England, France and Ireland) and the sucker punch to Scotland, left Wales winded, bedraggled and with rumours swirling over the tenure of Wayne Pivac.

Such a fall from grace – Wales were the No 1 ranked side in August 2019 – was the one thing Warren Gatland had feared when leaving the country after 12, wildly successful years, “It would break my heart if Wales went back to the doldrums,” he lamented in Japan, as he took the one-way ticket back to New Zealand.

After such an inauspicious period, coming into the Six Nations, Wales were so off the radar as to be totally submerged. They had been written off in several quarters with withering put-downs and worse still, sympathy, as the Welsh management pulled up the clipboard and drew crosses next to players unavailable for selection – before the Scotland game, there were a remarkable 21 players on the long list; Ross Moriarty, Jonathan Davies and Rhys Patchell weren’t too far away, while long-term absentees Gareth Anscombe and Ellis Jenkins were at various stages of their road back, but two weeks in, along with France, they are the only side with an unbeaten record, so how have they done it?

Wales aren’t a ‘lucky’ side

Let’s get this falsehood out of the way from the off. Wales have been pre-fixed with the ‘lucky tag’ in some quarters since emerging victorious over their Celtic cousins, Ireland and Scotland. According to the East Terrace website it was the first time in Wales’ 745 Test match history, that they have ‘benefitted’ from consecutive red cards, with only 12 ‘carte rouge’s’ being brandished towards the opposition in 140 years. It is very unlikely to mark a rare hat-trick unless Owen Farrell’s tackle technique is called into question.

The point is the framework around blows to the head has been understood unilaterally by all parties in advance of the tournament. When Peter O’Mahony took a run up from 15 metres with a ‘chicken-wing’ blow to the head of Tomas Francis, the Welsh prop could hardly be rebuked. It’s not like he had a ‘hit here’ target emblazoned on his head.

Peter O'Mahony
By the letter of the law, Wayne Barnes had no option but to send Peter O’Mahony off (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Likewise, in a less clearcut incident with Zander Fagerson, Wyn Jones was not ‘asking for contact to the head’ when trapped in a ruck. Both O’Mahony and Fagerson, will privately, have rued their reckless rush of blood to the head despite public protestations of support from their team-mates. In both games, Wales made hard work of a one-man advantage, having to fight like billy-o’ to win the games. Indeed, Ireland and Scotland both took the lead for large swathes of the game with both outcomes going to final whistle but it wasn’t Wales’ fault they were at a numerical advantage. A red herring.

Lineout starting to function

Before the tournament started, Wayne Pivac was at pains to stress that Wales’ set-piece had to improve and while the scrum had been solid enough during the Nations Cup, with Wyn Jones playing the rugby of his life. the lineout had been a shambles, with Ryan Elias, in particular, struggling to hit his jumper.

Against Ireland it spluttered, with four lineouts lost, but against Scotland, with Ken Owens getting his eye back in and Adam Beard making the calls, it flourished with 11 lineouts won, and only one lost. Using the enormous 6ft 8ins Beard wasn’t exactly revolutionary but Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric, and of course Alun Wyn Jones were used as jumpers to mix it up as as a fundamental mechanic of their set-piece started to function consistently.

Defensive appetite returning

The stinginess of the Welsh defence under Shaun Edwards has been well-documented. He went to France after an extended four-year deal with Wales was not forthcoming and turned Les Bleus into title contenders. Rien ca change. The path to redemption defensively has been far from easy. Pivac had to show a steeliness in agreeing to part ways with his defence coach at the Scarlets, Byron Hayward in November, while Sam Warburton decided a media career behind the mic and other business commitments was preferable to a part-time role as breakdown coach.

At the 2020 Six Nations and Nations Cup, the defence was out-of-sorts, with Wales getting caught narrow, opposition teams finding holes where there were once red brick walls and the tackle completion rate hardly ‘best in class’ as they tried to adapt to a new system. With Gethin Jenkins parachuted in, in recent weeks, his work has started to bear fruit. Many have said they don’t see a front row forward being a defence coach, but Jenkins was no ordinary prop, he was one of the best defensive No 1s the world has seen.

Garry Ringrose
Wales made a tackle every 20 seconds against Ireland in a huge defensive effort (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Against Ireland they made 245 tackles, with Justin Tipuric’s 83rd minute tackle on Garry Ringrose at full-stretch, a game saver. Sides don’t make those tackles if they not motivated by a collective resolve, and in spite of Jenkins being disappointed with the amount of tackles his side had to make, the portents were promising.

Against Scotland, they made 181 tackles, and while again, there was room for improvement, Owen Watkin was able to atone for his missed tackle on Stuart Hogg by ankle tapping Duhan van der Merwe, with the clock on 82 minutes and 27secs. When the whistle went for the end of the game, five players dropped to their knees, such was their exhaustion. That will please Jenkins who will look to extract every sinew out of his players.

Selection gambles paying off

There were some who were writing George North’s epitaph as a Test player when he was sent back to the Ospreys before the Wales v Georgia game in November. North had other ideas.  He has been the form outside back in Wales since then, and his selection for Ireland at No 13, was an inspired choice. His appreciation of space, step and break outside Iain Henderson was the pivotal try against Ireland and just reward for a composed display in a relatively unfamiliar position.

With the public clamour for Jamie Roberts to return in the wake of Johnny Williams and Jonathan Davies’ unavailabilty, it would have been easy for Pivac to relent, but he picked Willis Halaholo, someone he had worked with in Auckland, and the Cardiff Blue put in a highly competent debut, turning over balls, using his quick feet to escape the first tackler and turning provider for Rees-Zammit’s score.

Pivac also showed his authority by pulling off nearly 150 caps of experience, in Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar, as he chased the game with Kieran Hardy and Callum Sheedy both adding to Wales’s attacking arsenal. The late rip on Oli Kebble from Jim Botham, after the 22-year-old felt hard done by missing the original selection, showed the hunger in the squad. While the continued omission of Rhys Webb looks debatable, the Welsh coach appears to be getting most calls right. 

Attacking weapons

Wales scored two tries against Ireland and Scotland in the 2020 Six Nations. This year they have posted six tries against the same opponents. This hasn’t been a procession for Wales, a parting of the defensive line where defenders have waved them by with garlands and kisses They have had to work bloody for them. At times they have looked blunt, and lacking in innovation but their offloading numbers are second only to France and they have been clinical when in the opposition 22. In Louis Rees-Zamitt, they have someone with the X-Factor.

Louis Rees-Zammit
Louis Rees-Zammit showed Wales aren’t afraid to bring bright young talents through (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)

After applying the coup de grace with a classy finish against the Irish, against Scotland, Rees-Zammit had to step up with North missing. Fortunately he was ably abetted by Liam Williams on the opposite flank, with the Gloucester wing turning provider for the Scarlets’ bomb defuser’s try. How many wings would have scored his second try? Jonny May, maybe, Marika Koroibete, outside chance, Cheslin Kolbe, he’s more a stepper and explosive 40m sprinter than a 100m sprinter. Yes, for all that Wales are maligned for being some sort of Dad’s Army (they did have seven players over 30 in the starting line-up against Scotland) Wales do still have some very gifted young players. Rees-Zammit has emerged like Jacob Stockdale in 2018 and the onus will be on him to continue to outfox defences and with Jonny May and Anthony Watson next up at the Principality, the learning curve will be getting no precipitous.

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