Liam Williams, Tomas Francis and the need for patience all feature in this review of Wales' win over Argentina
A victory which requires contextualising
Despite beating Argentina by 24-20, this Wales victory received a largely lukewarm response, which is unusual and unjust. It may be because Argentina, through their addition to the Rugby Championship, are rarely seen on free-to-air TV these days and that many simply aren’t aware of their current standing or quality. When the whistle blew in Cardiff, Argentina were ranked above Wales (Argentina sixth, Wales seventh). Argentina are no longer a mere ‘banana skin’ on which to slip, they are the gorilla which eats the banana skin then has the power to tear you apart. A win against Argentina should rank alongside a victory versus the Wallabies and the Boks.
The set-piece was hugely effective, near perfect in fact. The Welsh scrum was hugely dominant and the lineout produced swathes of clean ball – 14 from 15 attempts. There were impressive individual performances from Liam Williams and Alun Wyn Jones, as well as key contributions from Ross Moriarty and Gethin Jenkins, who appears to have added delicate line kicking to his enviable repertoire. Given the changes to the squad, this performance may not have delivered the artistry that many were hoping for, but compared to last week’s Tracey Emin this was Claude Monet.
Liam Williams: simply awesome
Whilst some in Welsh rugby are still obsessed by how many times you can curl a bar, Liam Williams continues to raise the bar. His performance was near perfection. A blend of skill and athleticism fused with something that simply can’t be measured on a stat sheet: grit and determination. Williams’s try was the perfect example of his attitude towards rugby. Having taken the ball from a standing start, a beautiful step did for one defender, then his characteristic thorny hand-off and awkward yet relentless leg drive did the rest. Added to his try were three clean breaks, three defenders beaten and eight tackles with none missed. There were occasions on Saturday where only razor wire or a medieval mantrap would have stopped Williams. There will also be little stopping him from becoming a British & Irish Lion.
Signs of change
The team selection for the Argentina game showed that Rob Howley is in charge of the Welsh team. Warren Gatland has never dropped Jamie Roberts and rarely makes six changes to a team sheet, so one can only assume that Howley is calling the shots rather than relaying them from Gatland’s mobile phone. Howley’s changes may take time, but there were glimmers against Argentina.
Leigh Halfpenny’s performance is a key barometer of change. Like Roberts, Halfpenny’s style of play has close associations with ‘Warrenball’ but Saturday saw the full-back frequently look for the pass rather than the knee-jerk high ball between the 10m lines – he kicked the ball just three times on Saturday, opting to pass and run six and nine times respectively.
Another telling aspect in the change of play was that five of the back-line each beat three defenders by looking for space and a pass rather than contact. Scott Williams beating Juan Martín Hernández on the outside, with zero contact, in the 29th minute was the first time I’ve seen a Welsh centre do that to a defender in a long time. Howley’s Wales will need time and many may not have patience, but there are signs of change at least.
Scott Williams and James Hook syndrome
Many were hoping that Scott Williams starting at 12 would have an immediate impact on the Welsh back-line and their style of play. This was never going to happen. Changing eight years of deeply entrenched running patterns will be like trying to untangle a set of Christmas lights and three sets of in-ear headphones entwined with six phone chargers. Scott Williams and the Welsh back-line will need at least half-a-dozen starts before they begin to change their style of play.
Wales will need to avoid ‘James Hook syndrome’, where an individual is expected to create magic with every single touch of the ball – and if they don’t they get criticised by the public and the media. Williams is a very good inside-centre and his passing ability will vastly expand Wales’ options in the midfield and wider – but it will take time.
Tomas Francis is rock-solid
In a modern rugby world where players are expected to be multi-faceted and fuse many skill-sets, it was hugely refreshing to see a player do exactly what he was picked for. Whilst Justin Tipuric is expected to be a seven and a centre, and No 13s are now expected to be centres and experts at the breakdown, Tomas Francis was a tighthead and nothing more.
Francis rolled up to every scrum, bent over, gripped the opposition loosehead and simply did not move in any direction. It was a hugely impressive performance and provided as stable a scrummaging platform as Wales have had since Adam Jones dominated the front row prior to the changes to the scrum engagement. He also put in eight tackles and – perhaps more impressively – played for 80 minutes, which is some feat for a man who weighs more than a Victorian wardrobe. Well played, Tomas.
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