Heading into this year’s tournament most Welsh fans would have been happy with 2nd place. With 6 Lions’ stars injured, and 3 other players who would have been in contention to start, the outlook wasn’t great.
As it happened though, these injuries were a blessing in disguise in a way. They forced the hand of the coaching team to select in-form players, and to begin with at least, play something approaching the style of rugby the public at least had been crying out for.
Here’s a few thoughts on some of the key issues Wales faced throughout the tournament.
Wales used a total of 30 different players.
Corey Hill, Gareth Davies and Hadleigh Parkes started every game.
James Davies and Josh Adams both debuted for Wales during the tournament.
With the severe injury list at the start of the tournament, Wales chose 10 Scarlets to begin the campaign. Much like in Gatland’s first season in charge, he stated that familiarity would be hugely useful in combatting the loss of so much experience.
The result against Scotland, who were cock-a-hoop after a strong Autumn campaign, lifted expectations, but Wales were soon back to earth with a bump after the disappointing defeat against England, where the team would have been unchanged, but for the late withdrawal of Leigh Halfpenny, with a foot infection. He was replaced by Gareth Anscombe.
Facing Ireland, Gatland reverted to type, by recalling Dan Biggar and Liam Williams as much to counter Ireland’s kicking game as to play Wales’ kicking game that he has used so often in the past. This was a severe disappointment as when Biggar left the field to be replaced by Gareth Anscombe, Wales looked dangerous with ball in hand.
The game against Italy saw multiple changes and bought accusations of showing the opposition little respect. This was unfounded however, as a makeshift team ran in five tries.
The final game against France saw Gatland put a result before performance. He got the result, just. And with it 2nd place.
Although there was some consistency in selection, in key areas Gatland fiddled unnecessarily. It was clear who Gatland’s first choice front five, 9 and centres were for the tournament. But there was indecision in the back row, and back three. It was clear to me that had Biggar been fit from the start he would have been selected.
Having selected Patchell initially, it would have been better for him to come back in for the Italy game at least. To be fundamentally discarded following the England game would probably have hit him hard. Adding Anscombe to the mix during the tournament has sullied the waters, unnecessarily with a tour coming up in the Summer.
The dropping of Aaron Shingler for the game against France was incomprehensible. One of the stand-outs for the first three games, it seemed totally unnecessary to see Tipuric shoe-horned into the role for the final game against France.
The back three didn’t remain the same for two games on the trot. The change to the second game was enforced, but just as players were settling in they were shifted out of the side. Again, hard to understand why.
The injuries Wales were carrying at the start of the tournament forced their hands in this regard. Wales were unable to play a structured game that Gatland likes, with the available personnel, so they went out and approached the game with an attempt to copy the Scarlet’s blueprint. It worked, until they got to the second game, and encountered a harrying, well-organised defence.
It was a tough experience for Patchell, but at the first sign of a blip, the new way that Martyn Phillips unveiled in July 2016 was discarded for the trip to Ireland. Back to the kicking game that Gatland favours.
Admittedly, Wales struggled to deal with the refereeing interpretations of Glen Jackson, especially at the breakdown, but it was a shame to see them begin a game with such a different mind-set.
There is an argument to say that you have to learn how to win in different ways. But then Ireland don’t really rip up the play book to any great degree, and have been very successful.
Wales jumped back into a more expansive approach in the game against Italy, scoring five tries, in a game that had a Barbarian feel to it for Wales. Credit is due to Italy for the middle period of that game for testing Wales to a degree. They ended the tournament getting bogged down against France, in a forward battle they were in danger of losing.
The mainstay of Gatland’s approach has been physical dominance. Wales seem to have lost that edge over the last 18 months, which is a worry. We are missing the likes of Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies, but without that edge, the approach that has been called for won’t be successful.
I’m not convinced Wales really want to be that expansive in the bigger games. In fact, the necessity to throw the ball around that some feel is necessary seems misguided on times. Wales need to find that physical edge again, and the intensity and accuracy to execute a plan that can be successful.
There has to be a sustained period where Wales play a more open game, even against the better opposition, so whether we can discover if we are capable of playing that way. The coaches need to be consistent in selection in this regard.
The alternative is the coaches know their first choice team, and tactics, and they are just waiting for those player to be fit again. The “strength in depth” we’ve unearthed may only be rolled out in case of injury if this is the case, and we wil be stuck with a slightly amended, outdated style.
Wales find themselves in an unusual position 18 months from Japan ’19. They have unearthed a number of players capable of playing at the top level. but despite assurances to the contrary, Gatland doesn’t seem convinced that he wants them contributing on the front line.
When the chips were down, Shingler, Evans, Adams, Anscombe and Patchell were relegated to bench duty. The new way of playing that has been talked up was sent the same way. The final game against France was an ideal opportunity to lay down a marker in terms of intent.
You have to be pleased with 2nd place, to a point. But a high tempo, high intensity performance against France that played to our strengths, not their’s would have given a message that Wales weren’t simply just settling for second, but were keen to show that they are properly on the right track, with a striking performance at home.
Currently, there are as many questions raised as answers provided in this tournament. We have a block of Tests in the summer, a block in the Autumn and the next Six Nations before the next World Cup. Twelve games to answer those questions. Twelve games and the World Cup Warm ups to be ready to try and mount a genuine challenge at Japan ’19.
The decision to allow Gatland to leave Wales to coach the Lions in 2016, for a second time was wrong.
It’s too late in the cycle for Gatland to be making these changes now. It’s questionable given four years whether he would be succesful.
With all the positivity that the new found strength in depth brings, the team still have to be comfortable with that new approach before entering a World Cup.
I’m genuinely undecided whether Gatland really does want to evolve too much. I’m even less convinced that we’ll be any where near ready come Japan ’19.
Hearty congratulations to Wales for finishing second. With all the indecision in selection and how we want to play, I’m yet to be convinced exactly where we are going. Let’s hope he has given himself adequate time.