By Paul Williams
Simply the best
Wales have played some good rugby during the modern era, the performances of the Grand Slam years being the most obvious, but Saturday’s display arguably ranks as the best. There were no ‘Hollywood’ offloads, lucky bounces or fortuitous interceptions. Wales dominated England for 80 minutes, in every aspect of the game, and every single Welsh player outshone their opposite number. Wales secured 63% possession and 65% territory. Wales were unstoppable at the scrum and had a tackle completion of 92%. They denied the opposition a try for the fourth game in succession and conceded just seven penalties in the process. Feed me ‘til I want no more rang out around the stadium on Saturday and this time it had a special significance – the Welsh fans had their appetite for quality rugby sated and it tasted superb.
Ferocious front row
Front-row forwards rarely get the credit they deserve. Particularly in Wales, where more delicate skill-sets are often lauded. That isn’t the case after Saturday’s game. The Welsh front row were tremendous. Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard, Gethin Jenkins, Paul James and Ken Owens tortured the English front three – at times it contravened the Geneva Convention. Stuart Lancaster was even forced to hook Joe Marler off after just 44 minutes. But whilst the Welsh front row’s scrummaging was thoroughly old school, their performances around the field were very new school. Hibbard’s carrying and tackling was destructive and both Jenkins and Owens had very sticky fingers at the breakdown. Wales v England had been billed as the final audition for the Lions tour. If true, some of Wales’ front row are guaranteed a callback.
The Welsh back row didn’t really look Welsh against England – it looked Kiwi. Toby Faletau, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric raised the standard of Welsh back-row play to another level. It was a lesson in selecting modern lightweight forwards with an emphasis on speed as well as technical ability. Last week’s big question was Warburton ‘or’ Tipuric – as it happens the answer may be Warburton ‘and’ Tipuric. They complemented each other perfectly. Having two sevens on the field meant that even when one was on the floor, the other was often on his feet. The benefits of always having one of your fastest, most skilful, forwards on their feet at all times was demonstrated in Alex Cuthbert’s second try. Warburton’s explosive pace and power started it and Tipuric’s majestic skill-set did the rest – a Test centre would have been proud to run his line. The Warburton v Tipuric issue isn’t one that Wales have to worry about – the rest of the world’s Test-playing nations maybe should.
Big bang theory
In truth the Welsh back-line had been quiet in the opening four games. Kicking-based game plans had dictated they perform a more defensive role and use their size to make tackles. Against England, their size was used to break tackles. Between them the Welsh back-line beat 12 defenders – the entire English squad of 23 beat only nine. Cuthbert, George North, Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips, in particular, wreaked havoc – double tackling a necessity not an option with them. The size of the Welsh backs was particularly evident when Wales executed energy-sapping ten-phase sets in England’s 22m area. Unlike other teams in the Six Nations the Welsh backs offer little relief when the ball is passed out wide. But for all of the physicality of North, Roberts and Phillips, it was Cuthbert’s surgical finishing that stole the show – and rightly so. Tackle bounces for show. Tries for dough.
Many have been quick to blame the Welsh coaching set-up in recent months. Rob Howley’s right to coach the Welsh team and his selections have been questioned, whilst Shaun Edwards’s reliance on the blitz was criticised when Wales’ defensive performance slipped during the first half against Ireland. However, if the criticism must be heavy, then so must be the praise. Howley and Edwards et al have done a tremendous job during the last few weeks. Having shipped three tries in 42 minutes against Ireland, Wales haven’t conceded another during 358 minutes of rugby. Wales’ scrummage has dismantled both the Italian and English packs – both of whom take pride in their set-piece. They have beaten Scotland, Italy and France away from home and destroyed a much fancied England team. But most importantly the Welsh coaching staff have reinstalled a sense of pride and optimism in Welsh rugby – something that had been noticeable absent prior to the Six Nations. The regional game may be in tatters, the player drain continues and the financial situation in Wales remains a concern – yet Wales are champions of the northern hemisphere once again. Rob Howley, Shaun Edwards and Robin McBryde – take a bow.
Follow Paul Williams on Twitter @thepaulwilliams