On Saturday Wales lost to South Africa in the most galling of circumstances in a result that will doubtless take Warren Gatland's men a while to recover from
The best, worst, most pleasing, annoying defeat
Wales’ performance against the Springboks, in isolation, was impressive. But in the context of the first test, it was miraculous. The performance must surely rank as one of the greatest seven day turnarounds in Welsh rugby. The Welsh pack was ultra-competitive against arguably the best forward unit in the world. The backrow of Josh Turnbull, Toby Faletau, and Dan Lydiate were mightily effective. Between them they made 44 tackles – Faletau made 18 on his own. Whilst the entire pack’s efforts were laudable, Gethin Jenkins and Alun-Wyn Jones were a level above even that – both senior players put in career highlight performances. Wales claimed 58% of the possession and 53% of the territory. The scrum ran at 83% and the lineout was equally stable, winning 10/12.
With a solid platform and almost violent breakdown work, the Welsh backline flourished – Mike Phillips, Alex Cuthbert, Jamie Roberts and Jon Davies proved that they are more than capable of moving the ball into the wider channels. It was particularly refreshing to see Jamie Roberts being allowed to pass the ball to screened runners and decoys rather being used like cannon fodder. Of course despite being seconds away from becoming the first Welsh team ever to beat the Boks in South Africa, this display can’t be treated as a victory. There were some sizable negatives. Wales didn’t blow one sizable lead, but two – they worked hard to build separate 17 and 13 point advantages. The defensive decision making that led to Wales being reduced to 13 men was questionable – as too was Liam Williams‘ brave but naive tackle and the events that led to the first of the unsuccessful drop goals. However, all of the Welsh squad and the nation will be quietly pleased to have restored pride.
Gethin Jenkins. Bravery personified
Recently there have been calls for some senior players to make way for the next generation. However, Gethin Jenkins’s performance against the Springboks will have put some of those calls into perspective. He was simply heroic on Saturday. His scrummaging was solid and defence was immaculate – completing seven tackles and missing none. But it was his work at the breakdown, in the absence of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, which was so impressive. His nickname is ‘Melon’; well maybe now it should be ‘Melon ball’, so compact was his body position in the jackal. The Springbok clearout had enormous problems removing him once he had locked over the ball. To have turned in a performance like that after 107 caps does him immense credit. Respect.
Wales flooded the contact area
The Welsh’s pack’s key performance indicators were all good against the Springboks but it was their work at the breakdown that requires particular praise. There was a marked difference in the Second Test. Wales flooded the contact area with bodies. There were no one man clear-outs and a single guard. Every ruck, numbers allowing, had a minimum of a double clear-out and two guards – without fail. It was a clever and necessary tactic against the Springboks. Whilst the pack weights, between both teams, are largely similar, there is something different about the Bok forwards. They aren’t made like that in the gym – they’re made like that in the womb and consequently require some shifting. The Welsh set-up will be mightily impressed that their pack managed to dominate the Spingboks for large swathes of the game.
‘Feel a tad sorry for Liam Williams
Liam Williams’ shoulder charge in the dying minutes of the game led to a penalty try and a simple conversion that ultimately cost Wales the game. Warren Gatland has since said that Williams has apologised to the players and that he, Gatland, hopes the player will learn from that experience and hopefully doesn’t do it again. However, before everyone lambasts Liam Williams it is worth remembering Williams was doing everything in his power to win the game for Wales, not lose it. Arguably the decision to opt for a lengthy drop goal, when there was still time to build vital phases was equally as costly.
A new approach to defending 5m mauls.
Elite margins require elite decision making and it may be time to reassess the way that rolling mauls are defended. Between the 29th and 32 minute Wales conceded two yellow cards and a penalty try whilst defending the Boks’ phenomenal rolling maul. However there may come a point in elite rugby where it is simply more efficient to concede the five points and leave a difficult conversion rather than risk a yellow card and a penalty try. As this test has proved a single yellow card often leads to the concession of more than 7 points – two yellow cards is suicide. It may seem counter intuitive to willingly concede points, but with repeated warnings from the referee, it is surely the correct decision – rather than concede a penalty try and a yellow card. It’s comparable to cricket where the concession of a single run is deemed more beneficial simply to remove an effective batsman from the strike. Food for thought.