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?
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.
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.