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FEATURE Wales score the perfect ten but problems persist

Wales score the perfect ten but problems persist
8 months ago

To the glassy-eyed Welsh fans snaking their way back from the Allianz Riviera stadium, the result hardly mattered. Refreshed by beer, a traditional singalong with a Welsh lilt included Delilah, Bread of Heaven and Sosban Fach. It was enough to make the half-an-hour trip back to the centre of Nice, snaking its way gently along the Promenade des Anglais, a rambunctious affair.

The famous Welsh parable, ‘win or lose, on the booze’ seemed appropriate as fans scattered into the night to continue their festivities but there is little doubt that back at the stadium, the inquest will have already started as to how a bunch of amateurs, and semi-pro players, who reside in the lower reaches of the French pyramid had pushed these well-renumerated Welsh professionals to the point that Taulupe Faletau was called upon to don his magic cape and ensure a vital bonus point with the last, desperate play of the game. Faletau, a humble man, who is economic with his words, will never seek plaudits but if there was ever a petition for a statue to be erected of the celebrated No 8, this writer would happily sign it.

Warren Gatland has a poker face that would clean up in Las Vegas, but in the bowels of the stadium, he cut a pragmatic tone. Two matches, ten points, six-day turnaround. Job done. If it was only that simple. He admitted that worry lines and grey hairs had been added in the last seven days and as he celebrated his 60th birthday he will hoping, nay praying, for an easier ride in Australia next Sunday in Lyon. Sadly, after a first loss to Fiji since 1954, the Wallabies are in backs to the wall mode, so it’s not likely and Welsh supporters should prepare themselves for another tumultuous 80 minutes.

Christ Tshiunza
Christ Tshiunza had his best game in a Welsh shirt against Portugal and is pressing for a place in the 23 to face Australia (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Portugal warrant all the praise heading their way. They trumped Wales for territory, linebreaks and turnovers. Their scrum-half Samuel Marques carried with intelligence and in Tomas Appleton, they boasted the game’s best midfielder. The neutrals, sensing their ambition, backed Os Lobos vociferously, often out-chanting the travelling Welsh support. Playing with a vibrancy, joie de vivre and physicality that unsettled Wales at times. Gatland said the ball-in-play time in the first-half alone had been over 20 minutes, a considered ploy, yet most shrewd commentators still expected Wales to ram home their superior fitness and street smarts in the second-half. Alas, after making hard work of building up a 14-3 lead before the break, after it the handling errors mounted up, lineouts were lost, players ran up blind alleys and tackles were missed as Wales reinforced the fact Gatland had made 13 changes. It was a performance that bore little resemblance to a side that was working in harmony.

Morgan scored a try, set up an ‘assist’ for Louis Rees-Zammit to scorch over the line and generally proved a thorn in Portugal’s side with thumping tackles, turnovers and bullocking runs

Gatland was far less effusive than after Fiji and was very selective with his words. “We can be happy with that. We’re just looking for some players to be honest about their own performance and where they can improve.” Ouch.

A quartet of players were exempt from criticism, while a fifth emerged in credit. The aforementioned Faletau was one, and of course Jac Morgan, another. Morgan had been given just minutes warning that a tight calf from Tommy Reffell was not to be risked, and he was parachuted into the starting line-up even though he’d had a weights session that morning. He scored a try, set up an ‘assist’ for Louis Rees-Zammit to scorch over the line and generally proved a thorn in Portugal’s side with thumping tackles, turnovers and bullocking runs.

Jac Morgan
Captain Morgan is fast becoming Wales’ most important player with his all-round excellence (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Two other players pressed their claims to make the Test 23 against Australia. Rio Dyer was namechecked by Gatland as having stood out for a second time in a matter of months. Dyer isn’t perfect, but his kick-chase, aerial work and youthful abandon to try and find space or punch holes in defences is refreshing. The other player was Christ Tshiunza, who enjoyed his best performance in a Welsh shirt. There was a show-and-go, several carries in tight quarters and the nuts and bolts carried out effectively at the set-piece. Gatland says he sees him as a loose-forward in future, and there’s no doubt he enhanced his reputation here. At 21, with prodigious athleticism he has a high-ceiling in the game. Johnny Williams, while far from error-free, warranted a mention in dispatches, with 18 carries in 70 minutes and carrying for a creditable 75m.

Gareth Anscombe looked like a player who hadn’t played for five months, while warrior Dan Lydiate looked his 35 years and starting props Dillon Lewis and Nicky Smith seemed lightweight, with Corey Domachowski and Tomas Francis giving the scrum more solidity after entering the fray.

The experience of Dan Biggar, George North, Liam Williams and Will Rowlands will be drafted back in to deliver some order to proceedings against the raw Wallabies

There was also a serious malfunction with the lineout in five second-half minutes, with three arrows missing their target and Lake subsequently left proceedings soon after. Indeed, Wales’ success rate was a paltry 69 per cent. While Lake’s work in the loose is exemplary, and his power, ability to turn over a ball, priceless, you wonder whether Gatland will go with Ryan Elias as a starter in Lyon, and unleash Lake’s dynamism to close out the game.

It seems certain that the spine of the side who faced Portugal, is one that will form the nucleus of Wales’ 2027 World Cup side – Dyer, Morgan, Tshiunza, Jenkins, Costelow, Lake, Rees-Zammit, Mason Grady and the injured Reffell, not forgetting the absent Joe Hawkins, are all 24 or under – but the experience of Dan Biggar, George North, Liam Williams and Will Rowlands will be drafted back in to deliver some order to proceedings against the raw Wallabies, who are the youngest side in the tournament.

Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland has plenty to ponder ahead of the blockbuster fixture with the Wallabies in Lyon (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Given how rusty Anscombe looked and the inexperience of Costelow, the importance of Biggar and his driven personality cannot be overstated. He is on a par with Johnny Sexton for his influence on his side and Welsh fans will soon lament the end of his Test career. Wales dare not lose him to injury.

Wales are in the driving seat in Pool C but another clunky gear change could see them soon overtaken. The stakes are rising by the hour.

What will please Gatland is that he has eight days to prepare for Australia, having rested key personnel. With key men Taniela Tupou and Will Skelton indisposed, if Wales can hold their nerve, a knock-out game with either England or Argentina awaits, and Gatland knows both sides are beatable. A third semi-final in four attempts is not to be sniffed at for one of a country that has continued to punch above its weight, but they will have to be far slicker and exert more control that they did on the Riviera.

Wales are in the driving seat in Pool C but another clunky gear change could see them soon overtaken. The stakes are rising by the hour.

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