Muddled Wales Manage 2nd Place

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.

Selection

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.

Tactics.  

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.

Outlook   

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.

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Eddie Jones Not the Villain

The treatment of Eddie Jones by a selection of rugby fans following his team’s defeat to Scotland has rightly received a lot of attention.

Having amicably agreed to selfie requests, I can’t imagine he then expected to be on the end of name-calling, shoving, and general intimidation.

Once the incident became public, it was pleasing to see the response from the majority of the rugby community. Most fans from all countries were wholly critical of the incident, with the Scottish Rugby Union issuing the following:

Scottish Rugby is appalled by the verbal abuse suffered by Eddie Jones. The disgusting behaviour of those involved does not represent the values of our sport or its fans. The dignity Eddie and the England team showed on Saturday is in stark contrast to this ugly incident.”

How did we get to the stage where Jones had to endure this incident though?

Well, Jones finds himself in the position of being an Australian, coaching England. It’s fair to say that isn’t a combination that will produce much goodwill from opposition fans. Generally, few England coaches find themselves “popular” outside England.

Stuart Lancaster, the last England coach, may have been an exception in fairness. A quiet, unassuming almost studious man seemed to find himself in the position of PR Exec for the RFU as much as Head Coach.  (Of course his main aim was producing results, especially as he found himself the coach of England leading into a Home World Cup.)

When he took over following England’s exit from the ‘11 World Cup, it was clear that Lancaster was intent on improving the image and culture of the team. When a team isn’t playing well, drunken exploits such as a night out on the lash at a dwarf tossing venue, and an unauthorised drunken swim in Auckland Harbour, don’t give the right impression.

A poor display at the tournament, and the perception that the team were aloof from the public and press all needed to be addressed. Unfortunately, it was felt that this all came at the expense of on-field performance, and a second disastrous World Cup followed. Cue an early departure for Lancaster and ridicule from non-England fans.

Lancaster also tried to dispense with the idea that England were arrogant. It worked, to an extent. But England are never more “popular” outside England than when they are losing. However hard anyone tries, there are always those that will see them as arrogant.

When Jones took over, he fundamentally stated that he didn’t care about their image in that respect. He wanted them to win. He wanted that swagger to return. And he has been successful at that aim too. He has won 24 games and lost only 2.

With that returned the “arrogant” English tag. You could feel the hackles of the England bashers rising with every win. Indeed, those who dislike them could barely bring themselves to commend them at all. You got the sense that most of those wins were seen as “flukes” by some – and Jones sensed there was some of that in the press too.

It’s not been all plain sailing for him though. And it’s possible that he has become his own worst enemy in a sense. Cast your mind back to February 2016 and a massive game between England and Ireland at Twickenham.

I’d just be worried about his welfare if he’s had whiplash injuries,” said Jones, who also suggested Sexton’s parents should be concerned by his current situation. “I’m sure his mother and father would be worried about that. If you’re saying a guy has got whiplash then he’s had a severe trauma.

“Maybe they used the wrong term but if you’ve had severe trauma then you’ve got to worry about the welfare of the player. Hopefully, the lad’s all right on Saturday to play.”

There was uproar following those comments. Jones was labelled with all sorts of names. “How dare he question a player’s fitness in that way? How dare he question the work of the Ireland medical staff? What right has he to bring his family into this, they must be angry/worried/disgusted?”

Fair comments in a sense. But you get the impression that there is always going to be a greater backlash if an England Head Coach comes out with anything that isn’t polite/grey/downright boring.

In the same press conference, he raised a spectre that would return this year.

“We target players all the time … that’s part of rugby is it not?” said Jones. “Are we supposed to not run at one player? Is there some sort of special law? Hang on, hang on, he’s got a red dot on his head.

I’m not saying Sexton is a weak defender … [but] we’re going to be targeting players in the Ireland side. Why would we run at the strongest defender? We want to win and you win a game of rugby by attacking their weak points.

To say that’s unfair is just ridiculous. It’s been happening since Adam and Eve were around. You think they’re not going to send [Robbie] Henshaw at George Ford at the weekend? Give me a break.”

That idea of a player being targeted was out there in spades this year before England met Wales at Twickenham. This time it was used in relation to Rhys Patchell, the young Scarlets fly-half who was to play in his first England Wales game, after only 6 previous appearances.

“And for young guys like Rhys Patchell playing in front of that sort of crowd with guys like Simmonds, Robshaw and Farrell running at him, it’s going to be a hell of an experience for the kid. So I hope he has got the bottle to handle it.

He hasn’t played much Test Rugby. He is a young guy, he’s inexperienced, he is their third choice 10. He has got to get the ball wide for them and that’s going to be a big job for him. He has got to find guys willing to help him, because he is going to be under some heat.”

There are two ways of looking at these types of soundbites. The common response is to say there is no place for them in the game. We don’t need to listen to things such as this, or Jones’ suggestion that the Senior Players would come down to breakfast wondering whether a young player was capable of dealing with the pressure, as Jones later suggested. Or other instances of “poor form” from him.

Or we take them as they are meant. Throughout rugby circles across the World this is the sort of thing that is thought and said in the lead up to a big game.

Instead of regarding them as an “attack” on a player, as some do, they should be seen as an insight. A view into the minds of those involved.

Jones was perfectly right in his assertion that Patchell would be a target – that wasn’t an insult. Jonny Sexton was in the same boat. What is often forgotten is that this isn’t a friendly knock about on a local Rec. This is International Sport. Teams want to win. They will be ruthless. They will look to exploit weakness. And it’s not a crime to hear them express the nitty gritty of their sport either.

And coaches aren’t in their jobs to be pleasant. In the modern world, where people want to feel a part of what is going on, this is where we are.  No unwritten “gentleman’s” law that says you can’t be honest was broken.

Jones’ “fault” is that he is a winner, coaching England. And it’s an unshakeable truth that winners aren’t really appreciated in the Northern Hemisphere. We’d far rather see “effort” and the pain of defeat, than the all-out commitment it takes to not just take part, but to go the distance and win.

I would suggest that instead of waiting for winners to lose, as has been the case with Jones since he took over, we appreciate that there is the potential for this coach and team to do great things, and to watch the story unfold.

And we also need to re-evaluate how we participate in social media too. Do we want that instant access to those involved in the sports we love? Do we want to be a part of the experience, with everything that entails?  In the days where blanket coverage wasn’t the norm, things were still said, but there were only so many outlets to dissect and project their opinions onto them.

These are human beings after all, not robots. Yes, there are some coaches who are grey, who would rather come out with grey statements that don’t cause controversy.   And they have their place, some are even successful.

The press are the same. They want these press conferences to throw up surprises – it makes their job easier. When they come though, care needs to be taken how they are reported. What Jones said about Patchell wasn’t an attack. He wasn’t accused of “having no bottle”. There was no arrogance in what Jones said.

Perhaps it may be time for press conferences to be curtailed so that the controversy created is kept to a minimum.

Whatever the future, none of what Jones has said over the last 2 years was a reason for the terrible behaviour of these fans. His nationality or who he coaches should not have been the cause either.

Teams are there to be shot down, and when big teams lose there is a cause for celebration. Importantly, winning gracefully is something that needs to be learned too.

I have sympathy for Jones and I hope that he continues to do what he does as well as he does. I hope this is a reminder that the media and those on forums such as Facebook and Twitter can approach “fandom” in a more measured manner.

I won’t hold my breath, I fear this sort of thing will be on the rise.