By Paul Williams
The late, late show
Wales once again lost to the Wallabies when it seemed that they couldn’t. They have now lost their last three games to Australia in the dying minutes – once in the 72nd minute and twice in the 79th. This last defeat was the most unbearable of them all as it came at the end of a much improved and much needed performance.
The Welsh scrum was rock-solid, with Scott Andrews once again coping admirably at Test level and providing genuinely reliable cover for Adam Jones. Wales once again maintained parity with both possession and territory and their tackle completion percentage was in the bracket expected at Test level (88.2%). But of course, none of this will be remembered, and the hunt for a scapegoat is in full flow. Wales now have enough scapegoats from the autumn series to start a small farm.
In the line of fire
The Welsh lineout struggled against Australia and they lost six. More precisely it struggled in the second half after Luke Charteris left the field – Wales lost one lineout in the first half, yet five in the second. It wasn’t that Charteris was dominating the lineout; Wales didn’t use him once in the first half. Instead, they used him as a decoy and freed up significant space for Lou Reed and Aaron Shingler.
Once Charteris left the field, the decoy was removed and made it much easier for the Wallabies to track the Welsh jumpers. It forced Wales to vary their lineout more and take riskier options at the tail – sloppy ball and mistakes ensued. Much will be made of Wales losing the game with the last play of the game – losing Luke Charteris was arguably as important.
Jamie Roberts’s tackling was immaculate against Australia. He was the top tackler on both teams and by some distance – making 17 tackles and missing none. Roberts completely shut down the central channels and forced Australia into a wasteful kicking game plan. Roberts’s upper-body wrap tackles were particularly impressive and limited the Wallabies centres’ ability to offload the ball – Adam Ashley-Cooper and Ben Tapuai didn’t manage an offload between them. Roberts’s hands are sometimes called into question; his shoulders are second to none.
Backs in action
The biggest positive from the game was the Welsh back-line. It was the first time it has functioned this autumn. Key to this was Rhys Priestland. His line kicking was accurate and his passing was of a high standard – it was Priestland’s spotting of the overly eager Wallaby defence in the Welsh 22 that released an audacious, yet simple break, which allowed Cuthbert to make a 50-yard gain. Priestland’s chips over the top of the Wallaby’s blitz defence also caused significant problems.
Sadly, it is becoming unpleasantly fashionable to criticise Priestland and you are more likely to hear about his missed tackle, or his decision to kick in the 78th minute instead of going ‘through the phases’. I’m not sure how Priestland was supposed to go through the phases, there wasn’t a single player standing behind him ready to accept a pass and running with the ball, from your own 22, with a three-point lead, in the last minute isn’t exactly a percentage play – the kick was good, the defensive realignment wasn’t.
The Welsh threequarters were also effective; they ran straight lines and created more overlaps than they have in any of the previous three games. Jon Davies’s continually improving passing meant that the ball arrived in front of the wings and allowed them ample opportunities to make yardage – Cuthbert was the game’s second highest ball-carrier and Liam Williams continued his impressive progression in Test rugby. It was good to see the Welsh backs finally resemble a back-line, and not simply a defensive line.
Leigh Halfpenny was tremendous. He has been increasingly shackled by his defensive responsibilities over the past season, which he performs impeccably, but against Australia his running lines were of equal quality – he beat more defenders than anyone in the Welsh team. His goalkicking was once again at 80% and his kicking out of hand worked well too.
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Halfpenny’s conviction under the high ball was unquestionable, as always, but it was his defence that was so admirable. Halfpenny may look like a big guy when you see him flexing his ‘lats’ in a fitness magazine, but in reality he isn’t. Halfpenny is 5ft 10in and 13st 5lb, yet he tackles like a player who’s half a foot taller and 2st heavier. Apparently, the Lions full-back position is a toss-up between Halfpenny and Rob Kearney. It isn’t. Here’s a mast, a hammer, some nails and my colours – Halfpenny will be the Lions full-back.
Follow Paul Williams on Twitter @thepaulwilliams