Warm-up games for the Rugby World Cup have far more riding on them than the actual result.
Perfecting combinations, honing attack and defence, settling selection dilemmas, developing momentum, giving fringe players important experience – coaches and players have very different definitions of what constitutes a win in these games.
So who came out of last weekend’s northern hemisphere warm-up games as a winner and who might be feeling like a loser?
Winner: Warren Gatland
His Wales team rallied themselves after last week’s disappointment to win and they are now officially ranked No1 in the world. If we’ve learned anything about the rankings of late, it’s that they struggle to reflect how close the top five or six sides currently are. Moreover, this near to the Rugby World Cup, they couldn’t feel less relevant. But Wales have never been officially ranked first – in fact, they are only the fourth team to achieve that.
Quietly, over the past 20 months, Gatland has turned this Wales team from a decent side in northern hemisphere conditions into a force to be reckoned with. Since 2018, they have conceded an average of nine points per game at home. They won’t be favourites for the trophy in Japan, whatever Eddie Jones says, but it’s a big achievement and Gatland and the players deserve to have it on their record.
Undeniably, Scotland were the biggest loser of these games. They were beaten badly by France in Nice. It’s tough to pick just one area where they were poor. Yet again, they kept it loose against a team who proved repeatedly in the first half that they were better-suited to that type of game. They had the heavier pack but were overpowered all over the park, their defensive approach was hard to identify, and their attack never got going.
Scotland have now conceded an average of four tries a game across the last six matches and even the return of defensive maestro Duncan Taylor couldn’t redeem that record. They need to fix their defence fast.
On the evidence of this game, it’s not the only thing that needs fixing. Taylor had a steady game and Rory Hutchinson looked promising on his debut but there are precious few other positive takeaways for Scotland fans.
Winner: French flair
It’s become well-past a cliché to talk about how well France can attack “on their day” when, for years now, they’ve been mostly turgid and disappointing, scraping their way through games at home and repeatedly disappointing away. If anything, it’s their defence that has rescued them for a while now.
But, in their first warm-up game, their attack came out firing. Alivereti Raka scored 94 seconds into his debut, Maxime Médard finished two lovely moves, Grégory Alldritt continued his trend of scoring against Scotland, a nation he was eligible to play for, and Antoine Dupont completed the set. France beat 32 defenders, threw 23 offloads, and made 667 metres.
They kept the tempo up from the breakdown, overpowered Scotland, countered ruthlessly, and were clinical in attack. It’s always risky to take too much from a warm-up, especially given how poor Scotland were, but France looked better than they have for a long while. And, crucially, they didn’t get in their own way: their discipline was noticeably better than towards the end of the Six Nations.
Loser: George Ford
He couldn’t replicate his performance of last week and lacked control far too often with his kicking, with one kick out on the full from a promising position particularly disappointing. Ford did pick up England’s only points from two penalties but his inability to conjure up even one try from this talented English side will frustrate him.
Jones has always backed Ford, however, and he has captained the side a few times now. Moreover, Piers Francis and Jonathan Joseph being part of the final squad suggests he will get more opportunities to start and prove his worth.
Winner: Dan Biggar
JJ Williams wasn’t the only Wales fan worrying this week about Dan Biggar taking the No10 jersey but the Northampton Saints fly-half showed exactly why Gatland rates him, deservedly picking up the Man of the Match award, outshining his opposite number Ford, and only leaving the pitch when injury necessitated it. Everything that is good about his game was on show here.
Wales didn’t look good enough in attack to suggest that he will be the starting No10 in Japan but every team needs a Plan B in a tournament and there a few better equipped to implement one than Biggar. His perfectly-executed cross-kick for George North’s try was a nice reminder that there is more to his kicking than just up-and-unders and penalties.
Loser: England’s positional dilemmas
There is no doubt that England’s squad is full of supremely talented individuals but the sense that many are not playing in their most effective positions remain. It’s one thing for a single player to sacrifice his preferred position for the good of the group but England seem to have too many.
Elliot Daly is clearly a hugely talented player but still does not look quite right at 15 when put under pressure from the high ball, as Wales did here. Manu Tuilagi is worth having on the pitch but surely outside centre is a better spot for his talents? Courtney Lawes was perfectly competent on the blindside and his position there was presumably dictated by injuries in the back-row but England could still do with more turnover threat.
Versatility is, of course, a virtue in a tournament with tight squad restrictions but England look like they might benefit from one or two more specialists. Their next two warm-up games could be very interesting.
Winner: The new French coaching staff
It was just a warm-up game, the first one for either side. And Scotland were woeful. But France looked a world away from the team that disappointed in the Six Nations. What’s changed? The addition of new coaching staff to support Jacques Brunel and ease the transition into the 2023 cycle, which France will host.
Fabien Galthié, the future head coach, Laurent Labit, backs coach, Thibault Giroud, physical trainer, and Raphael Ibanez, team manager seem to have made a difference already. France looked like a Test-level side again. They used their big ball carriers well but had the vision and skill to release the backs where possible, defended well when called upon (denying Scotland a try), and kept their heads throughout. The new coaches might have been hired with the next world cup in mind but they seem to be making an impression now.
Loser: James Davies
Having finally convinced Gatland that he wasn’t too small for international rugby, impressing in camp, Davies went off with a head injury after 24 minutes. The injury to Taulupe Faletau and Ellis Jenkins seeming failure to recover in time has made the fight for the Welsh back-row spots both more open and, arguably, more competitive.
He made no obvious mistakes in his time on the pitch and, given that Ross Moriarty, Josh Navidi, and Justin Tipuric are surely certain to be on the plane, if fit, he will probably get another crack. Wales have two weeks off before their next warm-up so he has time to recover.
He will be disappointed, however, to have missed out on a game where the Welsh forwards significantly improved on their performances in the first warm-up. Davies might be small but he has a real appetite for a contest and he would surely have relished a game where Wales were much more aggressive all over the park. In his absence, Jake Ball and Aaron Wainwright, in particular, stood out.
Winner: England’s bench
They couldn’t win the game for England but – with the exception of Jack Singleton, who didn’t disgrace himself out of position – they added to England’s showing. The front row replacements added noticeable physicality, George Kruis made himself busy, Ben Youngs nearly set up a breakaway with some (too)-quick thinking, the ship immediately felt steadier for Owen Farrell’s presence, and, as usual, Tuilagi’s presence was felt.
England have now used 24 players from the final 31-man squad, with the remainder unavailable so far through injury. Each of those players has put in at least one good performance, leaving the squad with a healthy competition for starting spots.
Loser: nervous fans
Thankfully, we didn’t see any serious injuries in these matches. But that’s not the only thing making fans nervous.
With every game that goes by in the build-up to this Rugby World Cup, it feels like the competition is getting more and more intense. No matter how often fans remind themselves that these games are only for experimentation and practice, that too much can’t be read into them, and they have to wait for Japan, it’s tough not to get nervous. That should make for a brilliant world cup, of course, but it makes the build-up increasingly nerve-wracking.
Winner: versatile forwards
Towards the end of Wales vs England, there were four hookers on the field. Ken Owens showed he can put in a shift at No8 for Wales as well as he did for Scarlets and Singleton came on as a replacement in the back-row for the second week running. Elsewhere, flanker Aaron Shingler played 15 minutes in the second row and Lawes reminded anyone who had forgotten that he is as comfortable on the flank as he is in the engine room.
There was less positional experimentation in Nice, although Simon Berghan switched from tighthead to loosehead in the second half, an ability that will no doubt ease some of Gregor Townsend’s squad calculations. Among the backs, Damian Penaud looked more like a test-level wing than the out-of-position centre he has previously seemed, impressing throughout.
The permutations of a 31-man squad means we will probably see more experimentation with players in unusual positions between now and the RWC final on November 2nd.
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