Two losses on the bounce and a first home defeat for Wales in the Six Nations since 2017. These are perhaps not the headlines Wayne Pivac was envisaging when taking over from Warren Gatland but a cold dose of reality often does wonders for the senses and sharpens the mind. External factors are at play too. After a near-decade of internecine bickering with the Top 14, the French juggernaut is finally in unison and the tournament is enriched for it. While Pivac has said Wales have to take defeat on the chin, the overriding emotion for the team as they undertake a post-mortem will be frustration. They weren’t outplayed. They weren’t outfought but they were outthought by a shrewd French side growing in confidence by the game.
Let’s get some perspective
It is just Wayne Pivac’s third competitive game in charge of Wales and they lost by four points. For those with short memories, lest they forget, 1991 when France beat Wales 36-3, or 1998 when France demolished Wales 51-0 at Wembley Stadium. Then there was 2000 when Wales again were brushed aside by France losing 36-3, or 2003 where Wales were thrashed 33-5. Not enough? How about 2007 when France won at a canter, 34-7.
The no-so-subtle point I’m making is that Wales have had it easy in the last decade when France were in disarray on and off the field. Now however they have momentum, yet were it not for a kind bounce – thanks for the gift, Leigh Halfpenny. Yours Anthony Bouthier, or the slap down of pass – a little careless Monsieur Willemse – Wales would be toasting yet another narrow win over their Gallic friends.
Wales authors of their own demise
While it’s important not to decide the end is nigh from a Welsh point of view, it’s also not wise to brush over areas where Wales were foolhardy and lacking composure. The game ended in irritation when Camille Chat, in a manner not unlike Francois Louw in the World Cup semi-final, clamped himself onto the ball thus stopping Nick Tompkins from recycling the ball but the one period that will stick in the craw came before half-time, when Wales scented French weakness at the scrum, yet try as they might, they could not blow France’s house down. For nearly seven minutes before half-time, with Wales 9-17 in arrears, they put Les Bleus under such pressure that they conceded three penalties and had a player, Gregory Aldritt, consigned to the sin-bin, yet they still came away with nul points, often spurning overlaps with hesitance and tunnel vision. In the post-match analysis, they would have to concede they blew it.
It bore similarities to their offensive failure against Australia in the 2015 World Cup pool stages, when the Wallabies were at one point down to 13-men. Sharper, more clinical, maybe more hardheaded sides would have come away some points, even if it was through the boot of Dan Biggar. As Alun Wyn Jones said afterwards, they felt they could capitalise on France’s buckling scrum but Stephen Jones, Wayne Pivac and the senior leadership group will have to put their heads together to make they learn from their mistakes.
A new style of play is emerging but it needs time
As the players trudged in to the sheds to suck on their half-time oranges, a statistic popped up that told us, as if proof were needed, that this is a team with a different raison d’etre to Warren Gatland’s side. Wales had offloaded 14 times to France’s three. They had played with ambition, beaten more defenders and ran nearly twice and many metres as France. Now the wise-Alecs among you will point out that Wales lost the game and the brass-necked few will be the one’s openly pining for Gatland’s pragmatism where they once beat the drum for Pivac’s elan. Against France, according to rugby statistician Russ Petty, they made 19 clean breaks. Compare that to 29 in the entire 2019 Six Nations tournament, in which they won the Grand Slam. That’s a revolution, not evolution.
For those who tirelessly championed the breath of fresh air coursing through Wales’ attacking veins as an antidote to Gatland’s dour physicality, the message is writ-large – you can’t have it both ways. Pivac and Jones are at the embryonic stages of a four-year journey to France in 2023, with over 40 Tests to go before heading to France. They are finding out whether the players they’ve inherited can adapt to their style of play. If they can’t, they will be replaced and new players will be bedded in. It is early days.
Fresh faces are a boon for Wales
At the turn of the year, when every second sentence contained, ‘Louis Rees-Zammit has to be called up for Wales’, absolutely no one was talking about Nick Tompkins and Will Rowlands. Only the gilded few knew of their Welsh links. Two months later and both players are no longer filed under ‘private WRU files’ but promising Test additions. Tompkins has made the biggest impression. He would be the first to accept he’s been far from perfect, missing eight tackles and throwing an intercept in his eagerness to set Justin Tipuric free, but he’s been Wales’ most exciting back in this tournament. He quickens the pulse with his energetic running gait and relentless positivity to turn defenders and desire to make yards. He is worth the effort.
Meanwhile Wasps second-row, Rowlands, has only played 15 minutes of Test rugby but he did enough to suggest he warrants another look in the Welsh 23, leaving Cory Hill and Jake Ball to battle it out for the other spot. He’s a massive man, at 6ft 8in and over 19st, physically similar to Ireland’s James Ryan and a break late on reminded this writer of Ian Evans, with his loping stride and ability to ship the ball on suggesting he may have more footballing skills that the doughty but limited Ball. Two positives to cling on too.
Twickenham looks foreboding for Wales
Wales’ next opponents are England under the irascible Eddie Jones. The side fluffed their lines against France, emerged victorious in the storm up in Murrayfield but saved their best for Ireland in a performance which suggests they are still the side best-equipped to challenge South Africa and New Zealand. They were ruthless in defence, physically bullying an Ireland side who have been disassembled three times in just over a year and this without the muscle brothers, Mako and Billy Vunipola. Wales simply don’t have the personnel up front to go toe-to-toe with England’s behemoths so they will have to win through guile and flawless execution. Calls to recall Liam Williams are risky, with the player out of action since late October and there will be clamours for Josh Navidi’s return to the backrow to add brawn, with Sam Underhill and Tom Curry a duo to match any in world rugby, lying in wait.
At scrum-half too, there are decisions to make with Gareth Davies off-colour at Tomas Williams adding a perky second-half cameo. In the back-three, with George North and Josh Adams doubts, the calls for Rees-Zammit to be called up to the Wales 23 will intensity. Twelve tries in 14 appearances is making the case for the Gloucester speedster’s inclusion more and more compelling. Plenty then for Pivac to ponder in this most unforgiving of environments.
Watch: Catch up on all the action from Round 6 of the Japanese Top League.
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