A review of Wales' last-gasp victory over Japan in Cardiff
A negative victory
Not every victory is a positive, nor every loss negative. Ireland’s loss to the All Blacks was loaded with positives, Wales’ victory over Japan was not. Barring a confident match-winning drop-goal from Sam Davies, the ever consistent and hugely impressive Alun Wyn Jones and Liam Williams, plus some solid gain-line carrying from Scott Baldwin, this was another confusing performance from Wales. They beat 30 defenders, made 11 line breaks and completed 23 offloads, yet managed to score just three tries against a Japanese squad well short of the quality which saw them beat the Springboks in 2015.
Wales had 72% of territory and 68% of possession in the first half yet were unable to produce a significant points margin for any length of time. The pattern was repeated in the second half where fluid Japanese passing meant that Wales were never more than a handful of points away from a humiliating defeat, which meant Keelan Giles didn’t even have the opportunity to run onto the grass.
With an obvious advantage at the scrum, it was strange that Wales chose to use it so little. A telling stat is that two out of three of the Japanese back row out-carried their Welsh counterparts when back-row moves from the base of a scrum should have been prioritised. Even more baffling is that Ross Moriarty wasn’t used at all, especially given that ball-carrying is one of his major strengths. Not good. Not good at all.
Selection question marks
Wales’ squad selection against Argentina was progressive, a glimmer that Rob Howley had finally hammered a rusty nail into the ‘Warrenball’. Yet the selection for Japan appeared to be a nervous look over the shoulder. Back came the large carriers and predictable straight ‘one-up’ running lines. Barring the effective transition of Leigh Halfpenny to the wing, the Welsh back-line looked like cottage cheese compared to the creamy passing of the Japanese.
So, too, in the Welsh back row. While it was positive to see Dan Lydiate score a try, his first ever at Test level, the absence of a genuine ball-carrier was bizarre. The selection for South Africa will really show where Wales are in their rebuilding for 2019 because at the moment, compared to Scotland, England and Ireland, Wales haven’t really knocked down the old building, let alone started on the new one.
Slow ruck speed
It seems almost inconceivable that anything could be slower than Yu Tamura’s goalkicking and restart routines, but Wales’ ruck speed was. The problem wasn’t even with the speed of the actual ruck, the ball was often in place, only for it to be slowed by the scrum-half looking for carrying pods to form or runners to arrive at their marks.
At times it genuinely looked as though the players didn’t know what was happening next. Are we going wide? Or are we carrying up the middle? Even against a desperate South African team, Wales will not be able to dwell on the ball for such lengthy periods of time – the Bok counter-ruck is one thing that remains devastating.
Hat tip for Sam Davies
In a game deemed too risky for the electric Keelan Giles, Sam Davies was thrown into a situation in which even senior players were panicking – and shone. His 80th-minute match-winning drop-goal saved many rugby careers being blighted with a draw that would linger long in Welsh rugby.
To drop into the pocket and take responsibility for 80 minutes of rugby, when you yourself have played only 15, is a situation in which even the best outside-halves falter, let alone a 23-year-old picking up his second cap. It wasn’t even a nervy strike that bobbled through the air like a cheap plastic football bought from the corner shop – it was perfect. Congratulations Sam Davies, you saved a nation.
When will the excuses stop?
‘We’ve had a good training week.’
‘We keep making mistakes in the wrong areas.’
‘It will take time to change the style of play.’
The above may all be valid, but they are not helping to provide a long-term solution to the decline in the performances of the national team and the paying public are beginning to tire of them. Post-match pint conversations are no longer based on the positives of the Grand Slam years and are now veering towards far more negative matters. Wales’ fans see England, Scotland and Ireland progressing and wonder why it isn’t happening at home.
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It will take time to change the way in which Wales play, given how ingrained it has become, but Welsh supporters also saw Eddie Jones pick up a failing England squad and spin it like a coin. Charles Darwin had millions of years with which to demonstrate evolution, the Welsh team do not – most supporters want to see the back-line develop some hands sooner rather than later.
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