A remarkable game and a remarkable victory was headlined by Dan Biggar, but injuries and a set-piece implosion have tempered any celebrations in Warren Gatland's camp
Remarkable game. Remarkable victory
This was a truly monumental victory for Wales. A 28-25 win over England, at Twickenham, in England’s Rugby World Cup would be a defining win for any Welsh squad, but the circumstances from which the result was prised made it even more unlikely. The victory emerged from a game where Welsh players were being injured with the sort of frequency that you’d associate with the Pamplona Bull Run – not a rugby match. Wales overcame a ten point second half deficit – rare between tier one nations. The win was also built on a shaky set piece, particularly in the first half where both the Welsh scrum and lineout were struggling. But incredibly, Wales surmounted all of these hurdles.
Dan Biggar had the finest performance of his career. Whether Sam Burgess genuinely knew who Scott Williams was or not, he will do during England’s next video session – Scott Williams’ break in the 37th made Burgess, Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt look they were running for a bus with a swivel of the hips. Liam Williams, in the second half, provided valuable line-breaks and a quality of offloads that you’d expect from a game of Super Rugby – not a flat-out test match. As always, Alun-Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate delivered a rock solid defensive wall and together with Talaupe Faletau contributed hard fought yards.
The Welsh pack also defended the English driving maul superbly, which became hugely important during the final minutes of the game – and arguably cost England the game. And of course Lloyd Williams’ Gareth Bale-esque chip to fellow scrum-half Gareth Davies, for the Welsh try, obviously deserves a special mention. But to judge the full impact of the win we need merely look at Gatland’s reaction post game – I’ve never seen the man so choked with emotion.
Dan Biggar. Career defining performance
As Rudyard Kipling said, “If you can keep your head when all around you your scrum is wheeling and lineout collapsing, you’ll be a man my son” Pretty sure that’s what he said anyway. Biggar was courage personified on Saturday evening and delivered a performance as near to perfect as you can expect in test rugby. His goal kicking was spectacular with a 100% completion rate.
In scoring 23 points he set the record for points scored, by a Welsh player, against England, in a single game. The near 50m penalty, in the 74th minute, showed a level of calm and composure that Buddhist monks meditate for decades to achieve – something that England’s key decision makers were severely lacking in the dying minutes of the game. Biggar defended his channel solidly, as ever, and his work under the high ball would even have attracted a jealous glance from the likes of Israel Folau and Ben Smith. This was clearly a performance built on the team collective, but Dan Biggar’s individual contribution was hard to ignore. Well played, sir.
Injuries have become critical
The Welsh injury list was merely a ‘talking’ point a few days/weeks ago, but after the England game it has become a ‘thinking’ point – in that it is becoming increasingly difficult to think of any players who can replace those with long term injuries. Saturday saw Hallam Amos (shoulder), Scott Williams (knee) and Liam Williams added to that list. The injuries contributed to three players being forced to play out of position in the second half, a situation which could become a reality during the remainder of the competition – George North switching to 13 is looking like a genuine option.
The injuries also reduce the Welsh squad’s ability to rotate players given the constant increase of quality ebbing out from the squad. Warren Gatland will be praying that the injuries stop. Many more, particularly in the centre, and the Welsh coaches will be forced into picking players that, in reality, probably aren’t up to test standard yet, or passed their peak a few seasons ago. If the cruel run of injuries does continue Wales will find it very difficult to remain competitive, through no fault of their own, beyond the pool stages and could end up with Wales’ campaign looking like a one off celebrity special of ‘Casualty’.
Set piece meltdown
Despite the win, the frailties at the set piece can’t be ignored. There is still a long way to go in the competition and a scrum completion percentage of 67% and a lineout completion of 77% will worry the Welsh coaching staff. Despite very good performances both in the loose, and in defence, the Welsh tight five struggled against the English front row and lineout jumpers – particularly on middle ball. Many will argue that the English front row weren’t driving straight and were creating body angles that even Pythagoras would struggle to measure, but if the referee doesn’t agree, it becomes academic.
Wales’ set piece will need to improve particularly given the injuries that are blighting the backline. The Welsh backline needs all the help it can get at the moment and unreliable ball from set piece will add pressure to the constantly changing combinations that the Welsh backs have been forced into. Warren Gatland won’t have worried too much over the weekend but come Tuesday morning I wonder if he will be giving Luke Charteris’ selection a bit more thought.
Three point deficit. Kick at goal
This is a very short point. If you’re three points behind, with minutes to go, in your home stadium, at your own Rugby World Cup, in the toughest group in the history of the competition, against one of your fiercest rivals, in a game that has dominated the media narrative for months, if you’re offered a shot at goal from less than 30 metres – take it.
Nothing more to add.
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