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FEATURE Wales turn on the style as the rebuild starts in earnest

Wales turn on the style as the rebuild starts in earnest
7 months ago

How much should we read into a performance when the pressure dial is not turned sharply to the right? Some will feel not a lot, perhaps citing the quote from Ray Kroc, the man who built the McDonald’s fast-food empire: “It’s no achievement to walk a tightrope laid flat on the floor.”

Whatever, the question is one Warren Gatland will be asking himself after Wales’ 49-26 win over the Barbarians. The match was a fast-and-loose encounter that featured much laudable ambition, 11 tries, many missed tackles, an improbable no-look pass through his legs from George North and smiles aplenty from Alun Wyn Jones, a man who hasn’t always made it his business to radiate sunshine on a rugby pitch.

But what will Gatland have learned from it all?

First, the good news for Wales’ head coach: Dewi Lake offered further evidence that he is a serious player. Consider, if you will, the first 156 seconds of the game at the Principality Stadium. The 6ft 1in, 17st 11lb hooker began with a meaty carry after 12 seconds, followed it up with a turnover, then threw accurately to a lineout before transporting himself to the other side of the field for another run and pass: just one minute and 50 seconds were on the clock at that point. Another thrust forward presaged a charge that saw him power over the opposition line while taking four players with him – more than a quarter of Barbaria on the day, perhaps.

It prompted the thought that had it been Lake, rather than Indiana Jones, being chased by that giant boulder in the opening minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Welshman would have stopped running, turned round and shoved the giant ball whence it came, all while keeping his hat on.

Dewi Lake
Dewi Lake is looking increasingly like the heir to Ken Owens as Wales’ first choice hooker (Photo by Huw Fairclough/Getty Images)

Anyway, he held his form throughout his 49-minute stay on the field during the match in the Welsh capital. Darts found their targets, there was a clearout that would have shifted a small house from its foundations and hits on big opposition forwards such as Jones, Joe Moody and Rob Valetini. The shot on Valetini was particularly memorable, stopping the Australian back-rower dead on the gainline and arriving with such force that it may or may not have loosened a filling or three.

Former hooker Gatland would have been quietly delighted. Even given that it was only a run-around against the Barbarians, there was enough evidence there for the coach to now start seeing No. 2 as a position he won’t have to worry too much about over the coming seasons.

Another positive was the lineout, an area that seems to have been an issue for Wales since the days when a man might have looked up from his newspaper over the breakfast table and turned to his wife while saying: “Extraordinary, dear. Two brothers called Wright have just managed to achieve powered flight. Can you book us two aisle seats to Benidorm this summer?”

Or not.

Plumtree scored a try, snaffled a lineout, defended stoutly and adroitly took a pass off his shins before freeing Tom Rogers in the build-up to Kieran Hardy’s second  touchdown. His cameo against the BaaBaas was eye-catching at the very least.

But Adam Beard and Aaron Wainwright did prove safe options on their own ball, while Ben Carter and Taine Plumtree picked off three opposition throws between them – no cause for celebratory bunting to be put out in Westgate Street, perhaps, with the BaaBaas a scratch side, after all, but after seeing Wales’ set-piece misfire hopelessly against Argentina at the World Cup, Gatland and his forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys will welcome any hint of progress in the throwing, lifting, jumping and catching disciplines.

Carter had a fine game all round, with the Dragon eager to carry and defend, while in 24 minutes off the bench, Plumtree scored a try, snaffled a lineout, defended stoutly and adroitly took a pass off his shins before freeing Tom Rogers in the build-up to Kieran Hardy’s second  touchdown.

For sure, a final quarter against a tiring Barbarians side is a long way removed from a searching examination against South Africa or New Zealand. How far removed? As someone said of the contrast between the mile and the marathon, it is the difference between burning your fingers with a match and being slowly roasted over hot coals.

But, still, a man can only play what he’s up against and Plumtree’s cameo against the BaaBaas was eye-catching at the very least.

Taine Plumtree
Taine Plumtree provided a compelling cameo to produce more options as a back five player (Photo by Huw Fairclough/Getty Images)

The stand-outs behind the scrum were North, Rio Dyer and Leigh Halfpenny. North would have been in 9/10 territory had he embellished a couple of his breaks with passes out wide, while Dyer at times proved as hard to catch as smoke in a butterfly net and Halfpenny rolled back the years in his final Test. When the No. 15 hauled down Fijian wing Selestino Ravutaumada in full flight and then immediately rose to his feet to drag Ilasia Droasese to the floor, it was a reminder of how much he has offered over the years. In the bravery and defensive excellence stakes, he is right up there with some of the finest full-backs Wales have had.

Problems for Gatland less than three months out from the start of the Six Nations?

How to replace Halfpenny and potentially Liam Williams at full-back, for one, and also what to do at fly-half now Dan Biggar has taken his leave of the Test scene. The head coach could tackle the first issue by using Louis Rees-Zammit at the back, or he could ask Rogers to do the job, or he could make an ultra-bold call by drafting the raw but talented Cameron Winnett into the set-up, with the Cardiff youngster taking to senior rugby as if to the manner born.

But fly-half continues to be a headache.

Dan Biggar has retired from Test rugby, Gareth Anscombe has headed for Japan and Rhys Patchell opted to pitch up in New Zealand. Meanwhile Joe Hawkins, Jarrod Evans and Sam Davies, meanwhile, are unavailable after moving to clubs outside Wales. Gatland would be wise to explore what other options are out there.

Sam Costelow had just banged in his most convincing effort yet in a Welsh shirt, only to be forced out of the action with a hamstring issue and a shoulder tear which will sideline him for the rest of the year. His region, the Scarlets, say it will be “beyond Christmas and the new year before we see him”. With good fortune, he may be in good time to make the Six Nations, but Gatland would be wise to explore what other options are out there.

He has seen Dan Biggar retire from Test rugby, Gareth Anscombe head for Japan and Rhys Patchell opt to pitch up in New Zealand. Joe Hawkins, Jarrod Evans and Sam Davies, meanwhile, are unavailable after moving to clubs outside Wales, while Rhys Priestland left Cardiff at the end of last season and has indicated he’s unlikely to play again.

It’s fair to say that leaves resources thinned out.

Tomos Williams
Wales have serious issues at fly-half and are considering playing Tomos Williams there with options running out (Photo by Huw Fairclough/Getty Images)

A commentator once spoke of “cosmic confusion” in Wales sometimes being succeeded by the emergence of once usually great outside-half.

Is there much cosmic confusion today? Hard to say. But Gatland could do with a top-quality No. 10 emerging. The 22-year-old Costelow may yet prove that man, while his Scarlets’ squad-mate Ioan Lloyd is on an upward curve. Wales’ head coach also name-checked  the Dragons’ Will Reed and Bristol’s Callum Sheedy after the Baa-Baas game. And from the way Cai Evans kicked the ball last weekend, thwacking it fully 60 metres at times, as if it had offended him in another life, it would be no surprise if the Dragons’ man made it into Wales’ Six Nations group, probably as a utility back. Owen Williams? He has experience and a steady nerve but hasn’t been at his best so far this term.

But there is time for him and others to advance their claims.

It’s Gatland’s job, meanwhile, to lift up all the stones in Welsh rugby’s talent pool and see what’s underneath.

“You can’t be a good coach if you are not a good selector,” former Australia team boss Alan Jones once said.

He’s right. Fortunately for Wales, Gatland has a good track record in selection: if there are diamonds out there, it’s a reasonable bet he’ll find them. That being the case, there should be hope yet for serial man-of-the-match winner Morgan Morris. The best uncapped player in the country, the Ospreys No. 8 always makes a difference.

He has been so overlooked by the national selectors the temptation might be to send a note to Gatland, comprising just 11 words: “What do I have to do to get in your squad?”

Morgan Morris
By the time the Six Nations squad naming comes around in late January, Morgan Morris could find his way into Warren Gatland’s plans (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

On the other hand, that may be seen as a bit pushy.

Perhaps for him and other Six Nations hopefuls, the best strategy might be to just keep delivering.

There are places to be claimed in the new-look set-up.

And actions always speak louder than words.


1 Comment
DossieSG 224 days ago

I wonder what selection style and therefore playing style most countries adopt post WC given penalty count and alleged poor decision making which apparently the boks managed to avoid. Can’t remember it being as contentious since the Lawrence muck up in 2011.

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