Wales serve up a defensive feast.
Well, what a strange game of rugby that was! Having followed international rugby for the better part of three decades now, it can honestly be said, that the memory banks cannot recall quite such a defensive performance as that which Wales produced against England in Cardiff, during the second of three World Cup warm-up matches. Even going back to the Grand Slam efforts of 2008, where defence underpinned everything good that came from Wales, couldn’t compare to what happened yesterday, especially in the first 40 minutes. For with something in the region of 70% possession and territory to boot, England failed to make any impression on the Welsh defence. They came close, plenty of times, but there are no points for coming close, especially if you choose to spurn so many shots at goal. People will rightly question the English attack as much as they will praise the Welsh defence, for without figures like Tuilagi, Ashton and Armitage, England looked lost going forward, but equally little can be taken away from a Welsh defensive effort, which will few will rival, in a red shirt or otherwise, in the coming years.
As the defensive efforts took their toll, one team wilted, but it was the much vaunted Welsh energy levels that stood up to the rigours, and the English forwards in particular who seemed to be drained from their successive efforts attacking the line. A Welsh win was sparked by the sort of magic that only Hook can produce, but few would doubt that from the 50th minute or so onwards, that Wales had the game won. It was remarkable really how, apart from the occasional sloppy turnover, Wales locked England out of the game so earlier in the contest. The score line in the end was only separated by 10 points, but the performance was worth much more. As Gatland described it, this was a performance to be proud of above all things.
And pride perhaps is the opportunists point to dwell on, because a good performance, defence aside, it was not. In some respects this might have turned out to be the perfect game for Gatland, as a win came while the performance was far from perfect, and questions have been answered about certain players. Of those found wanting, some members of the pack certainly should be wary of enjoying the result for too long. Charteris in particular was a huge disappointment. We all know he is a great club player, but repeated experiments have shown that he just not have the mental fortitude to deliver on the international field. Shorter, less experienced line jumpers produced better results than Charteris could on the day, and were he to travel to New Zealand now, surely his trip would warrant a game against Namibia and little more. Lloyd Burns and Craig Mitchell are two who will probably benefit from injury concerns in the squad, but both performances highlighted that these were backup reserve players, and far from world beaters.
In the backs, all eyes fell on Henson, and while he did little wrong, his opportunity to shine was limited through an unlucky arm injury. What we did see indicated that his fitness levels were up there with the rest of the squad, his intent was clear as he argued his way back on to the field of play despite clearly carrying a limp arm into battle, and his defence stood up well, battering a number of white shirts backwards. However, in attack the backline was clearly stuttering, and Henson must be seen as a problem there. The fluidity of the backline seems to vanish with his presence, and it must be said that Wales are probably better off with Henson injured, than with trying to find a way to fit him into the Welsh attacking line.
Yet, good news abounds for other members of the squad, with the Welsh backrow developing into a formidable unit. Toby at No8 might have some wobbly handling at times, but more than makes up for it with his damaging runs, yet it is Warburton and Lydiate who are the real shining stars. These two figures did as much to secure Wales victory with their work on the ground as any other player did in attack. That being said, Priestland and Hook glimmered as well, showing that there is no shortage of possibilities at 10 and 15, with these two firing any concerns about injuries to Stephen Jones and Lee Byrne will fast be forgotten. Shane Williams even showed that there is further strength in depth at fullback, while his own defensive work indicates that the Polish training camp may well have added a new dimension to the tiny wingers game, as he ably took down the monstrous Banahan.
There can be little doubt that sitting back and taking a pummelling in order to tire out an opponent Rocky style, will only work for so long, and it will be important for Wales, not only to beat Argentina, but also to recapture some of the attacking fluidity on display in the Twickenham encounter. Samoa and Fiji might tire, but they have backlines far more capable of creating scores than the English were yesterday. Wales do not need to be chasing games, but forcing opponents to try and chase down a Welsh lead, then we will really see the benefits of the fitness training. Beat an underprepared Argentinean team next week by a comfortable margin, and this World Cup warm-up period can be ticked off as a successful endeavour. So far we have seen Wales lose despite exciting attack, and win through deadly defence, put them together, and who knows, a browbeaten South Africa might look more vulnerable by the day.