Welsh cause for optimism, depending on next week…
Another game on international rugby, another defeat, and one supposes yet another opportunity to reflect on what might have been for Wales, as the great comeback almost happened again, though not quite. No doubt many will reflect on whether Warburton, shining as captain, went in for his try or not (it certainly was a close call) and the impact that will have had on the game, but ultimately, whether a Welsh win had been recorded or not, the lessons to be learnt will have remained the same. Though as much as there is cause for positive analysis to follow today’s efforts, many hardy travelling Welsh fans will be relieved to know that Wales do not leave from Twickenham after a World Cup Warm-up fixture on the back of a hiding, for some that may well be enough.
So where were the rights and wrongs of today’s performance for Wales? In some respects we might be inclined to write-off the first half. What we did in attack was effective, but so very very slow. An excellent try from North who continues to excel should not hide the fact that Wales took an inexorably long time to turn an attacking position into points. The fact they did was in itself promising, but turn-around time from attack to score must be something to improve upon as these games go on. That being said, the intensity and speed of the Welsh attack become noticeably better in the second half, and that probably has as much to do with the departure of Mike Phillips as anything else.
Maybe it’s too easy to point the finger at Phillips these days, but one must wonder how a scrum half whose delivery of the ball seems to be, if anything, slower than on his previous outings, continues to own the No. 9 jersey. Tavis Knoyle certainly showed what quick ball could do, and it is something that Phillips simply cannot offer. There is bulk enough in the squad to go forward, with ball carriers all over the field these days. Do we still need the bullocking Phillips in that position, when our main strength lies in the quality of our backs, when the ball gets to them that is?
Defence wise, either side of the half was disappointing, yet so much of the Welsh game was based on solid hard hitting tackles, which should have produced better rewards if certain officials noted balls flying forward some 30m out of tackles..(okay, so it only happened once, but how all the officials overlooked that one huge knock-on will forever remains a mystery). A better front row might have helped with the first, but better thinking was simply required with the second, and it was perhaps in this one area in which we missed Stephen Jones’ organisational skills. That being said though, the old master was not missed, as Priestland turned in a stellar performance, which surely secures his position as the number two outside half in Wales, if not edging for a more prominent starting role?
Where things had gone wrong though in the first half (and the start of the second), many of those errors were, if not completely resolved, certainly ironed out in second. The defence tightened and the attack developed a certain whizz, missing in the first. Suddenly Wales were romping up the field with an intent missing in the first 50 minutes. Shane Williams led the way, who following an uncharacteristically quiet first half, opened his feet and began to make fools of those a generation younger than him, until of course Jamie Roberts took it upon himself to remind England how to tackle the aging speedster (another thing that might best be ‘ironed out’ come next week). The bench then lit up the park, and the Scarlets region will no doubt be bouncing with excitement having seen an almost entire Llanelli based team finish the game in the backs. Warburton grew and grew, hitting some magic internal switch that saw him unleash a pace we have not seen from him before, while the front row reserves showed some metal that was equally unexpected.
A defeat certainly, but not one that should worry. Take the positives from this fixture, build on them and carry the good attacking play into next week, and a crucial win could be on the cards. Let the same thing happen again, and we will have to look back on this weekend as yet another occasion of the Welsh team failing to deliver. Let’s keep fingers crossed that the positivity keeps flowing (and that Mike Phillips gets dropped).
As a side note, although the focus here is naturally on the Welsh performance, words must be given to Danny Care. The scrum half, who this column has never taken kindly too, exhibited a form of sportsmanship rarely seen in rugby these days. With Morgan Stoddard seriously hurt and leaving no cover at fullback, England could have had a golden opportunity to attack and potentially seal the game early on. But Care turned down that opportunity and asked the referee (Steve Walsh, who was as abject as he always is) to stop play. We might not like Care much, but we certainly have a new found respect for him, and a relief that sportsmanship is alive and well in international rugby.
Next week: More attacking play required from Wales, more tempo, more speed. Frankly that means one thing, no more Mike Phillips. Yes he made a break today, and he certainly entertained with his abortive NFL leap, but ultimately he is the one thing that stops quick ball reaching the fast backs.
In the forwards, any chance of seeing some of our first choice front rows would be a positive, the seconds and thirds are holding up, but we need more grunt from that department, and finally a start for Ryan Jones is probably deserved, after a decent cameo saw some of his better play in a Wales shirt in some time.
Otherwise, with a tightened performance and a lower error level, more of the same please, so long as the same is the better elements of the second half!