Wales finished a quite extraordinary match on the end of an excruciating loss but what could Rob Howley's men take from a turbulent Six Nations?
Scrums weren’t the culprit
BBC’s new Saturday afternoon drama was quality viewing. Running at nearly 100 minutes, instead of the advertised 80 minutes, the plot had everything that any seasoned drama connoisseur could wish for. There was violence/ biting, doctors allegedly disregarding the Hippocratic oath, and one of the commentators, played by Jonathan Davies, disappeared halfway through the game in mysterious circumstances – web forums are already suggesting that the Eddie Butler did it. The episode finished with a regional character, in this case Welsh, being cruelly killed off in the final minutes. But as with all good dramas the reason for the fallen character’s demise isn’t as obvious as it first appears.
Most will blame the ref or France’s alleged cynical replacement of a prop forward, but Wales making just two line breaks in 100 minutes is hugely suspect. As with all of Wales’ performances in this year’s tournament, the breakdown work was immaculate and the defence was almost Roman in efficiency – an 89% completion, with 215 tackles in total. Leigh Halfpenny’s goal-kicking was as good as you’ll see all season, in any competition, and Rhys Webb’s tempo was as intense as we’ve come to expect from the competition’s form 9. But it wasn’t enough. The passing in midfield was at times amateur, with simple short passes regularly being passed behind or above the man. Despite some positives and the obvious drama, Welsh supporters are tiring of the ‘who done it’ and want to know who’s going to fix it.
Lack of line-breaks cripples Wales
Wales made just two line breaks against France (France made nine). An individual stat that overshadowed some good individual performances from Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb and Ken Owens. The line breaks came from Ross Moriarty and Rhys Webb, meaning that the outside backs didn’t a create a single break in nearly 100 minutes. This is not a problem exclusive to the France game. Wales averaged 7.6 line breaks a game for the tournament as a whole – behind France with 11.4, Ireland with 9 and England with 8.4.
It is perhaps an indictment on Wales previous ‘tetris’ like approach to centre play that they are seemingly unable to pass or step their way through the middle. A reluctance to pick Liam Williams at fullback, a player who thrives on cutting the line, has also compounded the problem. It is a real concern as Wales approach the halfway point in their Rugby World Cup cycle.
Hat-tip for both front rows
It is rare that front row forwards receive much praise on the rugby field. Their work is rugby’s gravity – invisible, difficult for many to comprehend, but vitally important. Rightly or wrongly the front rows were the stars of the show in Paris. To play up to 100 minutes of test rugby is a feat for an outside back, let alone a front row forward – who rarely play more than 60 in the modern game. Add to that the fact that the last 20 minutes was almost purely scrummaging and the workload verged on the amount that a typical front row forward would experience in two test matches.
To put it in perspective the French front row completed 15 scrums on their own ball, compared to an average of 7.5 during the rest of the tournament. Whether Rabah Slimani should have been allowed on the field in the 81st minute remains a question unanswered, whether the front row forwards deserve a round of applause is not.
Rugby’s weird rules laid bare for all to see
Everyone knows that rugby’s rules are overly idiosyncratic. They’re like your unusual mate who does weird things from time to time, but as long as he sits quietly in the corner of your party and doesn’t create too much of a scene, everyone accepts it. Well, this week, rugby’s weird mate dropped his undies in the middle of the party and urinated in the punch bowl. There’s not a sport in the world that adds on 20 minutes of extra time unless the score is tied.
Add to that France’s cynical (being polite) replacement of a prop, allegations of a bite for which there was no footage and what should undoubtedly have been a penalty try awarded to France and you have a game that descended into a farce. But whilst the diehards will have enjoyed the spectacle, the casual supporter may not. Twenty minutes of reset scrums doesn’t exactly make a great recruitment tool in an age where rugby needs to increase its audience share as a matter of urgency.
Wales finish fifth
We were told that when Wales won three of their four games in the Autumn, with what were widely regarded as stodgy ‘Warrenball’ style victories, that only the result mattered. If that rule remains true then this Six Nations must be regarded as failure. To finish fifth in the Six Nations is to all intents and purposes is to finish last – Italy finished with a points difference of -151 points and can’t really be considered competitive this year. Last minute defeats to both England and France were cruel, but can’t be allowed to mask the fact that Wales aren’t creating or finishing anywhere the number of chances required to compete in world rugby as it stands.
Wales scored just eight tries in this tournament compared to the 16 from England and 14 from Ireland and Scotland. The era where Wales’ fitness and defence could win games is over. High balls on the halfway line and generating kickable penalties from the ensuing breakdowns is not enough. As the French result showed, even Leigh Halfpenny’s 100%, six from six, goal kicking is no longer enough and it hasn’t been for two or three seasons. The All Blacks averaged six tries a game last season, Wales are nowhere near that. It is a problem and needs to accepted by everyone involved.