Wales 15 – 24 South Africa

Having had some time to reflect on Saturday’s loss to South Africa, I thought it was finally time to stop moping and broadcast my views on what went wrong during the game as well as share a few thoughts on how I believe Wales should move forward following this setback.

South Africa are better than Wales…

This is a simple but crucial observation and one that I think too few people are willing to accept.  As a rugby team, we have come on leaps and bounds in the last 10 years, but the fact remains: we are not yet as good as South Africa.  Most realistic rugby fans would accept that fact, and when we sit down to deconstruct Saturday’s events, this must be something that is given due consideration.  There have been times in the last four or five years when Wales have actually been a better side than South Africa, and the losses against the Springboks during those periods must go down as disappointments, but for me, this one is merely an accurate reflection of the current status quo.

But Wales did not play very well

Having explained that it was relatively unrealistic to expect Wales to beat South Africa on Saturday, a caveat must be added: Wales could have beaten South Africa on Saturday.  The Springboks were not at their best, and a full-strength and on form Wales side would arguably have had enough to prevail.  To summarise these first two stanzas: should we see this weekend’s result as a disappointment? Yes, but that disappointment should be tempered by the realisation of a number of factors, not least the fact that South Africa are a flipping good side.

What went wrong then?

1) Injuries

Already shorn of Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert and Eli Walker, losing Jonathan Davies, Adam Jones and Liam Williams was devastating, and to be honest I think it was something of a miracle that we were able to stay in the game for the amount of time that we did.

 2) Failure to hit the ground running

 In his post-match interview, Warren Gatland was quick to emphasise the fact that most of the Welsh players have only had the RaboDirect Pro 12 to prepare them for this Autumn series, and although the Kiwi did not intimate this specifically, his message was quite clear: the Pro 12 is not good enough.  And he’s right.  This season I’ve been watching a lot of the Aviva Premiership, and boy is it a better competition that the Pro 12.

 In my opinion, the sooner the Welsh regions jump ship the better, as at the moment, our teams (and therefore our players) are playing in a largely mediocre league against largely mediocre teams featuring largely mediocre players.  When we consider that fact it’s no wonder that we failed to topple a side who have spent the last three or so months together and went toe-to-toe with the All Blacks in one of the best games of rugby union ever only a month ago.

 Our failure to hit the ground running should be contrasted sharply with England who ground out a win against Australia, which although not pretty, was still a win.  I have no doubt that if Wales had played Australia first up, we would have lost.

 3) Naïve tactics

 I’m loathe to criticise Gatland as I think he has done truly wonderful things for Welsh rugby, but did he really think that his specific brand of bish-bash-bosh was going to work against a Springbok team who do something similar but a lot more effectively?  This is not the South African team of 2010 or 2011, but a side who have added skill to their steel, and the Springboks generally bullied us in the contact area.

 After Jonathan Davies went off, we looked totally clueless in attack and ended up reverting to our ridiculous Plan B of kicking the leather off the ball.  That might work against Scotland or Ireland, but it’s not going to work against the Springboks.

 Wales really need to learn how to play in a different way, as time and time again we’ve lost to the big boys whilst playing our physical, confrontational style.  The fact that Ireland, Scotland and England have all beaten Southern Hemisphere teams in the last few years should be a real kick up the backside for us.  We have to go back to 2008 for our last win against an SH side and quite simply, that’s not good enough.  We are better than all the rest of the home nations, and it’s embarrassing that this is not shown in our results against the sides from the other hemisphere.

 4) Refereeing and failure to adapt

 I’m sure I was not the only one who raised an eyebrow when it was reported that Gatland had refused a pre-match meeting with referee Alain Rolland.  Although it wasn’t stated, I can only assume that Gats refused to meet the Irish referee on the grounds that he is still sore following Rolland’s decision to red card Sam Warburton in the World Cup, but to allow that resentment to last two years is extremely petty in my opinion.

 As far as I’m aware, those pre-match referee meetings are absolutely key, as the referee is able to lay the law down in terms of how he will be refereeing the game and what he will be looking to clamp down on.  Gatland’s failure to attend meant that he was not able to witness firsthand how Rolland intended to referee the game, and it definitely seems that this was to Wales’ detriment.

 Time and time again, Rolland’s refereeing at the breakdown was confusing, as he seemed to be allowing South African players to compete for the ball when off their feet or before they had released the ball carrier.  Whilst this is obviously ridiculously poor refereeing, had Gatland spoken to Rolland about how he intended to referee the fixture, Gats may have had a clue about how things might unfold, and could have put plans in place to try and prevent that happening.  As it was, South Africa (who presumably had sent a representative to the meeting) seemingly got away with murder at the breakdown, whilst Wales struggled.  We did seem to adapt via the brilliance of Sam Warburton, but by then we had conceded plenty of turnovers and penalties.  Schoolboy from Gatland.

 Who shone?

 There were a few bright sparks in the Welsh team:

 1) Sam Warburton – I thought the skipper was immense and really justified his place.  I did feel sorry for Tipuric, but this was definitely the sort of game where Sam was needed.  However it must be said that he showed naïvety towards the end when allowing his team to run a penalty when a kick to the corner or a scrum was what was needed.

2) Bradley Davies – Bradley had his best game in a Welsh jersey for a long time and really proved a point on Saturday.  I was somewhat surprised to see him in the starting lineup but he carried and tackled like a demon.  For me, the big lock is one of the first names on the teamsheet for next week.

3) Jonathan Davies – Before he sustained his injury, Foxy was absolutely amazing, and I can’t state how devastated I was when he went off.  He just seems to be able to find space and his pectoral injury is a huge blow for Wales.

4) Richard Hibbard – Another player who seems to have grown since the Lions experience, Hibs was immense.  A couple of iffy throws aside, Hibbard was one of the best players on the pitch and we should feel privileged to have a player of his physicality in our ranks.

Who was poor?

1) Rhys Priestland – Last week I wrote an article stating that I believed the selection of Priestland to be the right decision.  Now I’m not so sure.  It is far too simplistic to blame the 10 following a loss, and it seems unlikely that having Hook or Biggar at the helm would have influenced the result; but the fact is that the Scarlets flyhalf didn’t have a good game.  He kicked the ball far too much, and whilst I know that is probably part of the gameplan, Priestland was not picked in the first place because he could stick rigidly to the gameplan but rather because of his ability to get the backline moving.  He failed to do that on Saturday, and is on thin ice in my opinion.

2) Ashley Beck – It was an unfortunate set of circumstances that saw Beck brought on, but it has to be said that he was poor.  Whilst I think Beck does a job for the Ospreys, I simply don’t believe he has what it takes to succeed at international level, and I really struggle to see why he is in the squad.  I’ll be massively disappointed if he’s picked next week.

3) Alun-Wyn Jones – Leader of the Lions in the summer, Alun-Wyn had one of his very worst games in a Welsh jersey.  At his barnstorming best, Jones is athletic, intelligent and physical, but on Saturday he looked undercooked, naïve and tired.  Time after time he took the ball into contact with a ridiculously high body position resulting either in a turnover or a loss of yards.  It almost made me feel that Andy Powell was back.

4) Toby Faletau – Usually quietly intelligent and industrious in his play, Toby did some stupid things on Saturday.

5) Everyone who didn’t get the ball to George North – In the absence of Jamie Roberts, it was crucial that we used another means to get over the gainline, and most thought that George would be that player.  But he wasn’t.  George was barely used, and given the influence he can have on the game, it was ridiculous to see him hanging out on his wing simply waiting for his opportunity.  This was the guy who scored two tries on his debut against South Africa, and yet we didn’t bring him into the game.  No wonder we lost.

What do we do next week?

Jonathan Davies is out for the rest of the autumn, so we need to rethink the midfield situation.  For me, Ashley Beck is not the answer and with that in mind, I’m inclined to agree with Jiffy and suggest that we bring Hook in at 13 to partner Scott Williams.  This would take the pressure off Priestland to create and also free up a spot for Dan Biggar on the bench.  Having the contrast of Biggar and Priestland in the matchday squad could prove very useful depending on how the game is going on Saturday.

As far as the back three is concerned, Tom Prydie and Hallam Amos have been called up to cover, and it seems likely that if Liam Williams is ruled out then Tom Prydie will take his place.  If Liam is fit I expect to see the same back three line up again.  I’m not a fan of Liam on the wing, but I’m not sure what other option we have at the moment.

One area I would definitely look to change up is the back row.  Dan Lydiate was uncharacteristically poor on Saturday – he looked sluggish and short of match practice; in sharp contrast to Justin Tipuric who was all over the place when he came off the bench.  If I had my way, Lydiate would drop to the bench, with Sam shifting to the blindside and Tips coming in at 7.

The biggest selection dilemma is going to be the front row.  It looks like Adam Jones is probably out, and with Craig Mitchell also injured, we pin our hopes on Scott Andrews to anchor the scrum at tighthead (that is if he’s okay to play).  Argentina have a decent pack, and not having Adam is a real blow.  Here’s hoping Scott will be able to step up.

Can this autumn be a success?

I guess that question can only be answered with a clarification of what is deemed a success.  Given how useless Australia have been, it could be argued that even beating them wouldn’t be much of a success considering how good Wales could be, but taking into account Gats record against the SH, I suppose a win against Australia would probably have to go down as a success.

For me though, that is the very limit of what is acceptable.  England are not a very good side, and yet they were able to beat the Wallabies.  If we can’t beat them (after beating Argentina and Tonga of course) then there’s something not quite right with Welsh rugby.

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12 Responses to Wales 15 – 24 South Africa

  1. Martyn says:

    As much as we have come on in the last 10 years, we always seem to come up short when it matters, or when SH teams are not playing well. As soon as we get remotely close to the SH teams, they somehow manage to take the game up a few notches. The guys need to play more intense club rugby week in / week out.

  2. Hywel says:

    Really good article. A few things I’d take issue though. I don’t think SA are significantly better than us. We had more possession, more territory and more line breaks than them on the day. If Priestland had fallen on the ball before their third try I think the result could have been very different. I looked on in disbelief as he just watched the South African pick it up.

    I think you’re being harsh on Beck. He hasn’t been in brilliant form this season but at his best, like when he came on in Australia in the summer, I think he looks the part.

    The player we miss more than anyone else is Cuthbert. He’s maybe the most natural finisher in the world. He consistently scores more tries than any other player in our team. He is the cutting edge we lacked on Saturday. If we’re going to compete in the rest of the games we need a finisher on the opposite wing to North. That’s not Liam Williams. Maybe Hallam Amos? Very inexperienced but has genuine pace and scores tries

    • woodster says:

      I agree that the result could have been very different, but I think we also have to be realistic about the fact that if we did win, it wouldn’t have been fully deserved. We failed to cross the whitewash whereas they scored three tries. If we lost after scoring three tries against a team who scored none, we’d be bemoaning a serious miscarriage of justice. So yes, we could have won, but we did not deserve to.

      For me Beck is a regional level player, there’s plenty of them about. The idea that he would be picked at centre ahead of Hook or even Henson is – to me – laughable.

    • Simon Brett says:

      Do you really think it would have made a difference if Cuthbert was playing? You could have had Jonah Lomu on the wing but if you do not get the ball wide you might as well play without wingers

  3. Lee Hier says:

    Great article
    I think next week I’d like to see Hook in the centre too, still not convinced of him playing at 10 and I think we should focus on Priestland, Biggar and Patchell for the future. You could see quite clearly that Halfpenny was better at 15 than Hook and that’s why he was reverted to 15 in the second half. Scott Williams looked good while Foxy was on and played his heart out after that. I imagine that Priestland will start again against Argentina, hopefully he will improve with the game time. I’d love to see Warburton, Tipuric and Faletau as our backrow this weekend. Bradley Davies surprised me too, he gave a few silly penalties away as expected but also he put in everything he could into each carry. Gethin too played very well, huge tackles. I expect to see him alongside Hibbard and Paul James in the front row for this Saturday.

    We were always supposed to lose that game, South Africa were always going to be too much for us, but saying that we also could have won. I’m not sure if that Kick from Du Preez was a fluke or a piece of genius, but either way that’s what finished us off. I really believe that if he hadn’t had so many injuries we’d certainly have won. Imagine having Roberts and Cuthbert back! If Foxy had stayed on I think we’d have scored tries. All in all I’m still gutted as it was another one that got away. Wales did not look like a team beat in my eyes though. In past years we have been in a same situation and looked beaten with 30 mins left. Not this time, I was still looking for a miracle ball to pop up or bounce neatly and North would score or something, and then the game would come down to a Halfpenny penalty or something. Anyway a full strength Wales could have beaten them on that day but too many injuries was the deciding factor. It’s annoying me that England are winning ugly and we lose pretty.

    • woodster says:

      But how pretty were we? No tries, and no spark after Davies went off. We have this reputation for pretty, running rugby, but I didn’t see much evidence of that on Saturday.

      • Charlie says:

        Great article. I’m going to disagree with some of it, but it gets to the point. The try count said it all. I’m almost, almost done with slating the referee by this point but it has to be said he was a shocker. However, we normally manage refs well, and we got things sorted early enough in the game to have a chance of winning. If this game focuses attention on the weakness of the P12 then so much the better.

        For me, Wales allowed the ref and the injuries to throw them off their stride. It was all in the head, the Boks had more composure, and more belief. I think Sam and Gethin in particular played well, and barring the lineout the entire pack deserve credit for fronting up pretty well to a very physical side. Elsewhere we were inconsistent, and inaccurate. I think in North in particularly got caught out a bit in defense, Lydiate didn’t have his usual impact, and our back play looked a bit predictable at times. Also, we wasted overlaps by having forwards in midfield areas drop their head instead of moving the ball. That’s what forwards do a lot of the time, but it happens too often to Wales to just be a fluke. Had North been the one shifting position to offer an option, we might have been in business.

        I’d disagree about Beck as a player. I don’t think he did well on Saturday, he looked bewildered at times. However I think he’s got enough to be worth a go in the national side. He has awareness and a slick pass, he can make things happen for the Ospreys, and compensates a bit for Biggar’s caution.
        This Wales team is absolutely full of players who were regional-level at best a short while ago.
        It’s one of the things I really like about this group -I could not see Hibbard as a Lions hooker a few years back for example. I think whatever we do at centre we are taking a chance, and I’d rather take a chance on the future than continue to bet that Hook can play any position to a decent standard given a week’s notice. He’s been at 10 or 15 of late and it might be one move too far.

        Much as I like a kicking option at centre I just don’t think Hook’s game is physical enough. But we’re short on numbers and who knows. I f we do have to play him there, then he’s a 13.

        I know Priestland will cop some criticism, deservedly , for a defensive error and not adapting as the game went on. Some of the cross-kicking he tried was just infuriating when we weren’t winning anything in the air. Overall though I thought he looked more like the player we remember, and that was the main thing I was hoping for from him.

        Next week looks like a an awkward, awkward game. We need to put a side together to finally nail Australia, not to mention deal with Tonga, at short notice. I’d be willing to bet Hook gets played out of position, and we put Robinson or Prydie on the wing to keep HP at 15. Fair enough I suppose. We may not be able to rely on our scrum…perhaps Priestland is more used to that than Biggar.

        • woodster says:

          As always some great points Charlie.

          I agree 100% about the forwards getting in the way, but for me, Priestland is also culpable for giving them the ball. I remember vividly an occasion where AWJ was the dummy runner and it was on for Priestland to spread the ball wide and he threw a flat pass to Alun-Wyn who in turn got complete mullered by the Bok defence.

          Regarding Beck, I understand your point, and I concede that you never know what can happen – he may become a mainstay for Wales in the future. However, I think he’s played enough games now for us to know that he’s not yet ready to play the best sides. His naivety in defence has been costly in the past, and he just doesn’t possess that confidence that is so crucial in international rugby – especially in the centre.

          We’ve locked horns on Hook before, and I know what you mean. However, I can’t help looking back to arguably best ever season when he was deployed at 12 outside Dan Biggar. When he’s on song, Hooky just makes things happen in the middle, and with JD and JR out, it’s crucial we get some x factor from somewhere. For me, Hooky is one of the few players who can provide that.

          • Charlie says:

            This all might be moot since the team’s out already, but I think it’s worth replying. Hook’s a heck of a player and to be honest, our back division looks so young (I refuse to count Phillips as an old head, even if he plays til he’s sixty) that perhaps his experience is as big an argument as his class for his inclusion. If we’re going to have Biggar featuring regularly we’ve got to use another playmaker in midfield to break up the staid stuff , whether it’s him or Beck (or Allen!). The solid, stodgy stuff will get you a long way if your pack is on top, but we’ll need more to really make the most of our first choice back three.
            Beck seems to have more bad habits at international level than he does for his region. I may have been focussing to much on the general over the specific. I’d like Wales to stay focussed very strongly on the World Cup, and avoid using Hook as a crutch for the short term. It does a talented player no favours and avoids the real issue. I had doubts about J Davies and Scott Williams in the past and they came good, so I guess I’m just hoping history will repeat itself. But really, it’s hard for a coach to think beyond next week sometimes. Or is it? Fascinating team for Saturday!

      • Lee Hier says:

        I wasn’t referring to this game in particular as pretty rugby but in general. We often go down by a few points after playing good rugby or even being the better side. Whether we deserve the win or not you have to take it. Test rugby is all about the win. Sometimes we lose the games we deserve to win. When you win these games with the odds stacked against you you take huge confidence and it makes you a better team, the pretty part can be sorted in training.

        If you put it in to perspective we started off with Gethin who hasn’t played international rugby since March, Adam the corner-stone of our scrum went off afer 30 mins, Bradley since last autumn, Priestland since last autumn. A 2nd or 3rd choice centre partnership that have only played together in training (maybe they played against Japan), Hooky the make-do 4th choice winger. Chances are they wouldn’t have even trained together in that way. Against South Africa who’ve been playing the highest level of rugby and trained together for 3 months, who had arguably the best bench in the world, and whose only injury was a prop. Going down by 9 points isn’t so bad in those circumstances.

    • Simon Brett says:

      The difference between a good player and a great player is the top 2 inches, JD is a great player because of his rugby intelligence, Williams and Beck are good players but need a great player alongside them otherwise they make mistakes. One thing Hook does offer is a bit of intelligence, is he the answer, who knows maybe play him and North in the centre?

      • woodster says:

        I like the idea of that Simon, but I think ultimately that would be too many changes. North would have to play at 13 where he has never played internationally, and Hook would have to play 12 – somewhere he hasn’t played for a long time.

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