Wales shuffled the pack too vigorously, Rhys Priestland made a welcome return to Test rugby and it was a shambolic end to a poor test. All are covered...
Too many changes
If I was in charge of the playlist at the Millennium Stadium yesterday, I would have found it nigh on impossible not to slip Bowie’s ‘Changes’ on during the pre-match show. With 14 changes in personnel, 15 if you include Liam Williams’ move to fullback, and a complete overall of the team’s tactics, a fluid performance always looked unlikely. Other than the impressive Rhys Priestland and Rhys Webb, not one of the front row, lock, backrow, centre or back three combinations had played together before. And it showed. There were on occasions some fluid moves through the backline, and it is worth remembering that Wales had two tries disallowed, but on the whole Wales struggled in most aspects of the game.
Whilst changes to the backline made sense, radical changes to the front five row did not. Georgia are a team that consists of a scrum and a goalkicker, and if you can nullify their scrum you have them beat, yet it was in this area that Wales’ deficiencies were most visibly exposed, with the Welsh pack regularly looking like they had been fed through a car crusher. But despite the poor performance, at least they managed to avoid the sort of defeat that can blight a player’s career. Every player has a career win for which they are most remembered and equally, a career loss. This was very nearly another Western Samoa or Romania for some players – the stench of which would be hard to shift.
Rhys Priestland is back
For many in Wales, Rhys Priestland can once again be talked about in the present tense. Although he hadn’t retired from Test rugby, some viewed his move to Bath as the end of his international career. But as anyone who has being watching Priestland at Bath will know, he has been quietly doing the business for the last 18 months. As indeed he did against Georgia. His line-kicking was assured, his passing rapid yet sympathetic and his defence robust – he was the joint top tackler in the backline with seven.
But perhaps the most impressive aspect of his performance was his goal kicking. Priestland is a confidence player and when it drops, so too does his goal kicking completion. That was not the case against Georgia, which was made all the more impressive by the fact that his composed performance came amidst, what could have been, an embarrassing defeat. Well played Rhys P.
Props have long been associated with ‘dark arts’. A selection of poking and prodding antics which which wouldn’t look out of place in a medieval torture chamber. But not satisfied with the hidden dark arts, props are now knowingly or unknowingly involved in a more visible form of skulduggery – passive scrums. During the final minutes of the game against Georgia, Tomas Francis was yellow carded for illegal entry at a ruck – which officially registered a solid 9.8 on the daft-o-meter. During the following minutes, it was adjudged that Leon Brown was unfit to return thereby rendering all scrums from that point as passive – a situation which clearly benefitted Wales at the time.
Anecdotally, Brown could be seen warming up on the side-line, ready to come on, but post-match the Welsh coaches made it clear that Brown was unable to return. Whether he was or wasn’t can never be proven, but what can be done is to make it clearer that a player is injured and unable to return to the field of play when they leave, not 20 minutes later, in the heat of the battle, where circumstances can be manipulated to meet a certain outcome. World Rugby need to take a look at this issue before it rears its ugly head in a high-profile game where the outcome will be far more serious.
Georgia are good enough
Saturday was the first time that Wales and Georgia have played each other and hopefully it won’t be the last. Armed with a Tier 1 set-piece and goal-kicker they are more than capable of competing with the lower half of Tier 1 nations and with another five to ten years of development, certainly wouldn’t look out of place in an extended Six Nations. You need only look at their core statistics against Wales to see that they are a competent professional outfit.
They had 57% of the possession and 56% of the territory – in the second half those numbers swelled to 70% and 75%. Georgia made more line breaks and beat more defenders than Wales. They had near perfect set-piece completion, 100% goal-kicking and turned their own possession over three times less than Wales. Georgia are a real asset and present a great opportunity to grow the game. We should do all that we can to help achieve that.
Wales missed their backrow balance
Whilst the scrum issues will have worried the Welsh coaches the most, the problems at the breakdown will probably be next at the list. In all the talk of expansive rugby, a backrow forwards first job is the breakdown and not only to muck up the oppositions ball, but to clean up your possession on the ground. Wales’ ruck speed was very slow on occasions against Georgia and allowed the Georgian’s line speed to cause problems in midfield.
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It was to be expected. Changing your entire backrow will obviously lead to problems. Other than your halfbacks, no other combination on the field is required to work as closely with each other as the backrow. Josh Navidi and Dan Lydiate both had solid individual performances – Lydiate made 24 tackles for instance – but solid individual performances won’t be enough against New Zealand and that’s a fact.