With 32 seconds to go before the clock went red, Alun Wyn Jones slapped his front five heartily on the backs, as if to say, ‘job done, one final push’. A minute later Wales delivered, as Josh Adams powered over the line for a fifth try to finally put Italy out of their misery. Like an Audley Harrison sham-fight, Franco Smith’s men had barely laid a glove on Wales. There was no cohesion, little guile in midfield and precious little urgency.
In the build-up to the game, Jake Polledri, their brilliant Gloucester backrow, discussed having a grandmother from Abertillery and you wouldn’t have blamed him for casting his eyes enviously in the direction of Nick Tompkins, who also has Welsh lineage through his late maternal grandmother, Enid. Had she been alive, she would have been dancing in the streets of Wrexham such was the impact her son made. The 25-year-old can be filed as another player who, for whatever reason, was deemed not worthy of a call-up to the England squad but who will significantly enhance the options available to Wayne Pivac.
In the post-match wrap-up, the Welsh management felt the positives outweighed the negatives and RugbyPass agreed…
Dan is the man
Dan Biggar has, at times, cut a frustrated figure on the field of play. Such is his competitive streak that when he cannot bend Wales’ fortunes to his will, he vents, to the point it’s a part of his on-field persona but against Italy, he had the mien of a man comfortable in his own skin. In the first 15 minutes, he swept the ball confidently through the uprights from varying angles and showed his kicking accuracy from hand by launching a penalty kick 40m on the right hand touchline beyond a covering Mattia Bellini to leave him shaken and stirred.
There is an inclination in Wales to typecast a fly-half, so for some Dan Biggar is your steady-Eddie, in the Neil Jenkins and Stephen Jones mould, whereas Gareth Anscombe is more you Jonathan Davies or Barry John, adept at adding a little stardust to proceedings but the truth is more nuanced. Biggar has been given licence to express himself under Chris Boyd at Northampton, and has responded by playing some of the best rugby of his career.
A case in point came on 20 minutes, When the ball was moved to the blindside by Tomos Williams. Biggar’s feet weren’t quite aligned square to take the ball square on so he improvised and flicked the ball under his legs in a similar fashion to Carlos Spencer in his pomp. Fortunately, the evert-alert Adams was able to gather while Italy ball-watched and dot down on the same patch of grass that welcomed his first try. The split-second intake of breath when the crowd sensed a missed chance to the explosion of noise and awe at seeing what Biggar had done was something to behold. Biggar had reason to privately think, ‘are you watching JJ Williams?’.
The importance of a multi-sport background
Shane Williams had a gymnastic background that gave him the ability to do the unexpected on a rugby field. In 2008, this writer was left open-mouthed as he stepped Australia’s Drew Mitchell, no slouch by anyone’s estimation, from a standing start in the tramlines, by using his athleticism. He sent the Wallaby one way and then the other before accelerating past him. Tomos Williams is another who brings audacious skills learnt in another sport to rugby. He represented Wales at basketball at age-grade level and he too, has the knack of doing things that require a second-take. On 58 minutes he received a pass that was above his head but caught it with one hand and nonchalantly held it aloft for one second, like a boxer celebrating with his newly won belt, before pulling the ball into his chest and stepping into contact. It was an impudent piece of skill in a lively 60 minutes for the scrum-half. He didn’t allow Italian scrum-half Callum Braley any time to breathe around the fringes, constantly harrying, arguing the toss and sniping.
Early on Williams put a speculative left-footed kick behind the Italian defence and it was the scrum-half who put the pressure on the Azzurri with a probing dink over the top that saw Wales within five metres of the Italian line before they cleared. Not everything came off. He also whipped a flat pass to the onrushing Hadleigh Parkes five metres out but it was cut out by Carlo Canna and the Italians cleared but what draws admiration is his invention and sense of adventure. Rhys Webb was left no doubt his place in the Wales 23 is far from assured.
Every side needs their ‘grunters’
While Wales could point to having carried 563m with the ball in hand, they know it can’t be done without the grunters putting in the unheralded dirty work. In the pack, Jake Ball, with his Canadian lumberjack’s beard, is one such player. His job is not complicated. He is there to clear out defenders, as he did after Halfpenny’s brilliant regathering of the high ball, and throw his 6ft 6in, 19st frame into contact repeatedly, until exhaustion. The sight of the big Scarlet grimacing as his lungs scream for air is now a regular sight.
He was aided and abetted by Alun Wyn Jones who similarly held up ball, carried tacklers backwards in a fine display of lock forward play, while in the backline, it is Hadleigh Parkes who performs this role. He thundered into contact, making precious yards and on the other side of the ball, threw himself at ball-carriers with little regard for his safety. He also showed his footballing skills with a mighty clearance. Without these hardy types, Wales simply wouldn’t function.
Wainwright replicating Warburton is no longer a joke
When Robin McBryde quipped that Aaron Wainwright reminded him of Sam Warburton before the World Cup, there were many that scoffed at such a bold statement. Four months on, the suggestion is looking less and less fanciful. Against Italy, he was the standout backrow from both sides. He took clean ball off the tail of the lineout, carried aggressively around the fringes, chipped in to top the tackle count with 17 and showed his neat footwork in the wide channels.
Only 22, he seems to have the ability to reach a level of performance few others can reach and if he can work with Warburton on his breakdown influence, he could yet challenge his lauded breakdown coach in the annals of Welsh backrow fame.
A star is born…
There was an inkling of Tompkins’ class in his 10-minute cameo at 13 early after Johnny McNicholl had departed for an HIA. First he clamped himself over the ball to win a turnover, and then his arrowed flat pass off his right hand to Leigh Halfpenny who pushed a pass onto Josh Adams for his first try of the afternoon. In the second-half, Tompkins, this time playing at 12, delivered again just as Wales needed an injection of energy in a tepid third quarter. The Saracen, picked up the ball from 35 metres, scanned ahead and set off, stepping outside one defender and bouncing his way off another to streak away and celebrate with gusto. He raised his hands to the sky to thank his maternal grandmother in a show of genuine emotion that suggests he will be no one-cap wonder in a Wales shirt.
It was Tomkins again who seemed to pounce on a loose ball, pull himself away from the Italian defence only to square up and put George North away on his outside shoulder with a perfectly-timed pass. Only for a slight knock-on saw that try scratched off. It was the little touches that showed the experienced Saracens midfielder looks set for Wales’ push for the 2023 World Cup.
Set-piece work to do
One concern for Wales was the scrum which after a solid start, started to creak under the Italian pack and saw the penalty count rise. It gave Italy some concerted field possession to frustrate Wales. Both Wyn Jones and Dillon Lewis worked hard in the loose, with the former hitting double-figures for tackle count but with Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy ready to give any Welsh front-row hell, Wayne Pivac will be spending some of the week in discussion with Jonathan Humphreys deciding how to address the Irish pack. Rob Evans, Leon Brown, Rhys Carre and WillGriff John will have extra incentive at training this week.
Selection posers for Wayne Pivac
The Wales coach is now two from two but his sternest test to date will come against Ireland, whom they haven’t beaten in Dublin in the Six Nations since 2012, when George North used Gordon D’Arcy as a speed bump and popped a ball out of the backdoor to Jonathan Davies to skip gleefully over. Ireland overcame a tight encounter with Scotland where they were pushed much harder than Wales, so Pivac must decide where to make changes.
He will have Elliot Dee, Owen Watkin and Gareth Davies back into the selection mix, while it maybe more sensible to introduce Liam Williams in Round Three. The Scarlets No 9 should replace a rusty looking Rhys Webb on the bench, while Tompkins has surely done enough to merit a start leaving a choice between George North and Watkin for the outside-back slot. In the pack, the back five will likely stay the same, with Moriarty and Hill ready to provide some impact from the bench, with all the decisions to be made up front. Roll on Dublin.
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