Warren Gatland has a problem on his hands that most international coaches can only dream of.
Gatland’s Welsh side – fifth in the World Rugby Rankings and now just 0.06 points behind England – have an incredible wealth of loose forward talent. Some of that talent was showcased over the weekend in an impressive display against Argentina – a display that proved one of Gatland’s toughest battles will be selecting his own back row.
Openside flanker James Davies and Number Eight Ross Moriarty received starting nods and formed a stellar defensive tandem in the back row that proved too tough to crack for the Argentinians, who were kept tryless until the 78th minute in a 23-10 loss on Saturday.
The clinical Davies and ever-present Moriarty anchored the Welsh defence as they combined for 43 made tackles, missing just one each to convert at a rate over 95%. The Welsh defence as a whole was nothing short of smothering, as they made an incredible 223 tackles, missing just 16 of their attempts to tackle at 91%.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Davies’ and Moriarty’s presence on the field changed the complexion of the game from the outset.
The pair were in sync the entire 80 minutes, shutting down any semblance of Argentinian attack for the duration of the match.
Their most impressive sequence of play came inside the first 20 minutes of the match.
From the 17th minute until the 22nd minute, the Welsh defence held out the Pumas for 23 straight phases while inside their own 22.
Moriarty along with captain Cory Hill helped deny a Marcos Kremer try in the early stages of the 23-phase Argentinian barrage, and shortly after Davies was able to get over the ball and win a penalty to snuff out the attack completely.
It was outstanding defensive sequences like this that kept the Argentinians to a rate of just two metres per carry.
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The partnership of Davies and Moriarty continued to shine throughout, with both constantly on or around the ball and forcing the Pumas to play right into their hands.
Davies would consistently rush up to meet an Argentinian ball carrier – using his speed honed from years on the Sevens circuit – while simultaneously sealing off an outside option. If Davies didn’t make the tackle himself and the Argentinian player tried to cut it back inside, Moriarty would be right there to send them backwards with one of his game-high 26 tackles.
Even though they had just 35% of possession, it never felt like the Welsh were on the back foot at any point as they bent but never broke thanks to the tough defensive work of their loose forwards.
It was 27-year-old Davies – playing in just his second test – who walked away with man of the match honours against Argentina while Moriarty staked his claim as eight man in the absence of Taulupe Faletau. Their impressive all-around showing gives Warren Gatland plenty to consider moving forward.
Gatland is tasked with figuring out how to get the most out of a loose forward group that is arguably the world’s deepest.
Wales carried six back-rowers in their World Cup squad four years ago. Unfortunately, when it comes down to it someone incredibly talented will likely miss out in Japan next year.
Even with the presence of tour co-captain Ellis Jenkins – who led the side to victory against South Africa two weeks ago – and the eventual return of Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi looming – complete performances like this will make it extremely tough for Gatland to deny Davies a place in his 23 moving forward, let alone a place in his World Cup squad next year.
“We’re blessed at the moment. Ellis was great last week and I spoke to James before the game, it was the perfect match for him and he got on the ball,” Gatland said of his openside flanker crop.
“He [Davies] was outstanding and we are very lucky at the moment. I’ve got a little bit of a headache.”
Gatland’s side will look to finish their summer on a high when they meet Argentina on Saturday, where again it’s likely their toughest battle will take place among their own back row.
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