Wales made heavy weather of an obdurate Italian side that wilted in the final quarter as Wales cut loose but what did we learn?
A win but an overly structured first-half
Wales secured a comfortable 33-7 victory against an Italy team that ranks 13th in the world. Three tries, a perfect lineout completion (13 from 13) and a remarkably low penalty count (5) may seem like efficient test rugby but it was tempered by an overly pragmatic first half. The opening period was desperately frustrating to watch and tantamount to turning up to the WRU safari park only to see that all the animals are locked in their pens. It must have been equally frustrating to play in as to watch. Wales spent 40 minutes setting predictable pods and sending single carriers into an Italian defensive line that had aeons to reshape.
Dan Biggar executed some accurate cross kicks, but with little reward. The result was that Wales made just a single line break in the first half and beat just four defenders. Not one player carried the ball further than 18 metres and the entire team carried it just 117 metres in 40 minutes. When you consider that the French back three carried the ball 240m in 40 minutes against England, it should give you some idea as to how shackled the Welsh players were. Thankfully, Wales adopted a markedly different game plan in the second half. But if the players can execute a wider, more intricate strategy in the second 40, why not let them do the same in the first?
Unstructured rugby is where it’s at
The second half in Rome further evidenced that unstructured rugby is now winning test matches and Wales are more than capable of playing it. As with Scotland against Ireland, it wasn’t endless pre-set pods and single one-man carries which won the match, it was moments of improvisation.
It was Scott Williams’ double side step and unbalanced, end-on-end pass to Jon Davies that set up Wales’ first try. It was Sam Davies ‘ability to step two players from turnover ball that set George North into one of his trademark ‘Jurassic Park’ runs – if there had been a large log for the covering Luke Mclean to shelter under, he would have. Wales have the players to compete with the very best and they must be allowed to.
A game of two outside halves
It could be argued that any outside half who plays in the latter stages, particularly after the 60-minute mark, has an unfair advantage over those who’ve played in the opening periods of the game. Tired defenders allow for broken defensive chains and the gaps that outside halves crave. However, as was shown in Italy, Sam Davies’ excellent second half performance may have more to do with his skillset than the lethargy of the opposition. Davies is a very different outside half to Dan Biggar.
He is comfortable standing in a uncomfortable position- flat on the tackle line where backrow forwards like to rearrange skeletal structures. His speed of passing and flat positioning mean that he can move the ball more quickly to the second receiver – leaving more time for those out wide. A good measure of how flat he stands on the tackle-line is the frequency with which he is hit by defenders just after he flicks the ball away – he spends more time in the air than some WWE wrestlers. Rugby is currently favouring those outside halves with a less prosaic approach. Players like Finn Russell and the flat passing George Ford are flourishing in the less kick orientated test arena. Maybe it is time that Sam Davies is given the same opportunity.
It is impossible for every scrum to be refereed correctly. It just is. There are physicists working on the Hadron Collider in Switzerland that can’t explain the forces in a typical scrum. But even with that said, the interpretation of the scrum in Italy was erratic. There were occasions where J P Doyle looked as though he’d have more luck discovering the Higgs Boson particle than which front row was at fault.
At times, the team clearly wheeling the scrum illegally won the penalty. Something which Conor O’Shea had a problem with. It led to a situation where Italy had the dominant scrum in the first half, yet conceded a yellow card from a scrum in the second half. The inconsistency in refereeing, particularly at the scrum, also led to a noticeable increase in questioning from the players – at times Sergio Parisse sounded like he was recording a director’s commentary for a DVD of the game.
Scott Williams is Wales’ new 12
Despite having regularly played at twelve for Wales, Scott Williams has always been regarded as Jamie Roberts’ and Jon Davies’ understudy – that is no longer the case. His performance against Italy confirms that Williams will be Wales’ inside centre during this world cup cycle. If Wales genuinely want to change their style of rugby, then it needs to start in the 12 channel.
In truth, his numbers against Italy may look a little weak at first glance – 12 yards carried, with no clean breaks. But whilst those stats weren’t world beating, his passing and lateral movement were defender beating and integral to the Wales victory. His step and ability to distribute simply and effectively led directly to two of Wales’ tries. His defence was equally assured, with five tackles completed and none missed, and when combined with Jon Davies’ meant that not a single Italian cracked the central channel. Williams is here to stay.