With the Rugby World Cup under 100 days away, Wales’ warm up campaign got underway with their game against the Barbarians on Saturday, but ultimately failed to get off the ground. Isa Naweca’s dramatic last minute try sealed the fate of a welsh team that once again lost a game they should have won.
The Barbarians side was packed with talent as per usual – the obligatory uncapped players this time round were old hands Paul Tito (the Cardiff Blues captain) and Brock James (former top points scorer in the Top 14) – for a game that marked both the WRU’s 130th anniversary and Welsh legend Stephen Jones’ record-equalling 100th cap.
Unusually though the Barbarians found themselves dominant at scrum time. Iestyn Thomas, Sebastein Bruno and Carl Hayman proved a formidable unit – a fact that the Baabaa’s captain Sergio Parrise exploited to it’s full potential – and the Barbarians’; pack embarrassed a young welsh front row with a series of powerful scrums deep into Wales’ twenty-two.
This was an internationally inexperienced front row for Wales, and from a development point of view, debutant Ryan Bevington showed good staying power during his baptism of fire.
However Hayman is not what he once was and there are fiercer tight heads and more impressive front rows in the world, and this performance did nothing to ease concerns about Wales’ strength in depth.
As Wales’ frailty at the line out resurfaced and with no scrum to speak of Wales found themselves with no platform to build an attack from.
In the loose too Wales were forced to play in a scrappy game as the Barbarians made the most of their disruptive talents, with Martyn Williams, Matthieu Bastareaud and Iosefa Tekori working hard to put Wales off any game plan they may have had.
Aside from centurion Stephen Jones, this was a new-look Wales, with a lot of fresh faces being blooded ahead of the World Cup – typified by Sam Warbuton captaining the side while gaining only his 15th cap – and the young team struggled to stamp their authority on the game.
But in a typically loose Barbarians game, filled with forward passes and flair, many of Wales’ youngsters did offer welsh fans real reasons to be hopeful.
Toby Faletau put in a great performance, giving very little away in defence and showing glimpses of the powerful runs that have made him a favourite at Newport and Gwent Dragons.
The hard grounds of summer time Millennium Stadium seemed to suit Faletau’s game and by the end of the match he was sucking in two or three defenders every time he got the ball. A Rugby World Cup during the tail end of New Zealand’s winter may prove to be a greater challenge, however.
Whilst there were no what you might call ‘strong performances’ from the Welsh Squad there were certainly plenty of powerful ones.
Wales’ back row played very well and while Warburton didn’t have his best day with ball in hand he put in a superb performance around the park playing the role of understated open side flanker exceptionally well, and at the very least did enough to warrant his captaincy.
Mike Philips – formerly the most effective man in world rugby – once again proved himself he can get the job done. His skills as a scrum half has suffered over the last year, possibly due to lack of game time, but his ability for getting inside players’ heads and physically bullying the opposition around the park remains unchanged.
The term ‘rare talent’ gets thrown around very freely when discussing welsh youngsters, but there were fleeting glimpses of real ability from some. Despite time on the ball being something of a rare commodity in the welsh team Tavis Knoyle and Scott Williams, son of the great Brynmor, both impressed in the last twenty minutes with their fleeting touches of the ball.
Aled Brew, was very impressive throughout the game and was rewarded for some strong running throughout the game when he bulldozed his way over from short range for Wales’ third try. But what really impressed was Brew’s hunger and an aggressiveness when he didn’t have the ball, putting in a huge effort around the park and showing great strength in defence.
Unfortunately the same was not true for one Gavin Henson, a true rare talent in my eyes, in his first game back in a Welsh shirt for two years. The orange man became the grey man for most of the first half blending into the background.
When he did pop up he showed that he can still do what other welsh centres can’t (and to avoid confusion I don’t consider James Hook to be a welsh centre no matter how many times he’s shoehorned into that position) providing an extra passing or kicking option in the centres.
Henson will receive all the column inches a man could possibly want from elsewhere in the coming months, but for my part I believe Henson must go to the World Cup. He looked under-confident, possibly a by-product of not having trained with the welsh squad to often, but he is the link man Wales need.
Jonathon Davies’ break down the left late in the game was a case in point. Wales would have been beyond reach if Davies had been able to make a simple pass to Faletau after bursting through the defence with ten minutes to go and making 40 metres towards the try line. It is these key moments that games can turn on and if Henson had been in that position, you have to believe the try would have been a mere formality.
Fixing his defender and providing a silky, if a little forward, pass off of his left hand, to put into George North in the corner with his first touch of the game; taking care of wrecking ball shaped Bastareaud in the centre rather nicely and showing great awareness with more blind passes to Davies than were strictly necessary, Henson showed he still has enough to warrant a ticket to New Zealand.
Unfortunately, the day belonged to the Baabaas and it was rather ironically Willie Mason, another centre who all too often finds himself the focus of unwanted media attention, who had the decisive impact on the game. In only his first appearance in the union code, Mason made an immediate impact on the game fending off three defenders to provide beautiful off load to put in Bastareaud for his try.
Moments later Mason made it look all too easy as once again, somehow disentangling his arms from a tackle inside his own twenty two to provide a deft off load to the waiting Nacewa who danced through two more defenders to score the deciding try.
In a game full of such skill, where the lead changed hands five times and saw some of the most exciting players in world rugby come to the Millennium stadium, there was unfortunately little to savour for Welsh fans.
What are your thoughts?
By Sam Francis