Reasons to be hopeful for Wales?

Warren GatlandWith 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

12 thoughts on “Reasons to be hopeful for Wales?

  1. It was a frustrating defeat, but not a disaster. Losing to the BaaBaas rarely is, provided you put up a fight. Top score four tries with so little quality possession was encouraging, and I’m less worried about the tries conceded as both teams were quite blatantly holding back at times.

    I don’t really agree that Wales “threw the win away” as some have said – killing the game would have been against the spirit of the occasion, and it took a moment of pure brilliance to beat us at the death. If you’re going to criticise a team for conceding that Nacewa try, then prepare to watch 9-3s for the rest of your life…

  2. When you say Mike Phillips ‘formally the most effective man in world rugby’ (whatever that means), I think you mean, the most over-hyped, useless, angry man playing rugby. He’s an awful scrum half and has FINALLY been exposed as such. If a terrible side like the ospreys don’t even want him, that says it all. He’s not even a scrum half, he’s trying to be a flanker (a bit like Gethin Jenkins). His pass is awful, he has no vision, or rugby brain whatsoever and relies on his physicality to make the headlines and get rave reviews, when the simple fact is that’s all he offers. You want a reason the Welsh backline is as useless as the Scots? Phillips plays a big part in that. The kind of 9 backs must hate playing behind.

    Hook is a Jack of all trades, master of none, but his best position is 13. He has too much tunnel vision to play 10, and one try against Scotland was it won’t change that. Henson was absolute rubbish, to no one but Gatland’s surprise. “he is the link man Wales need” is that why he kicked the ball away needlessly every other time he received a pass?

  3. Got to disagree, I consider that game to provide a lot of negatives with very few positives for Wales – and I thought Brew and Phillips who you state as doing well were shocking. Brew’s positional play allowed for numerous problems (and this in a game where his poor positioning and catching were papered over by less kicking in the baabaas spirit).

    Phillips was slow getting around the field, his decision making was shocking and he gave his pack no control. He is not helped by a lack of protection or quick ball, no 9 would do well in that situation – we need to address other factors – but Phillips was truly poor.

    My ‘counter point’ to this article (interestingly enough posted a few minutes before you posted this – – funny how two people can see a game so differently!

  4. Whilst the title was designed to encourage a bit of debate, the sentiment is ‘there was unfortunately little to savour for Welsh fans.’

    I didn’t see the game, but it didn’t sound great!

    1. It was entertaining but far from great. I can see the article does suggest things were not great for Welsh fans, but the positives chosen (presumably to add balance) were also poor aspects imo – and if I am honest amongst the most poor parts of our game (the God awful Bennett aside).

      Thank goodness these are mostly 3rd choice players who played badly (phillips aside)

      1. Ryan Jones, Lydiate, Warburton, Phillips, Stephen Jones, Jon Davies and North are 3rd choice are they? That’s pretty much half the team

        1. Ryan Jones = 3rd choice 2nd row (and did far better than his 2nd row partner)
          Lydiate, Warburton and Jon Davies all played well imo (note I said that the poor players were 3rd choice aside from phillips)
          Phillips was pants, as I stated
          Stephen Jones was poor but not given much decent ball tbh. Certainly wouldnt hold this game against him
          North was
          a) not too bad (not great either – but not coming into the ‘poor category I stated)
          b) behind Shane and Halfpenny anyway.

          So I stand by my comments. Anything you disagree with there?

      2. Again, bear in mind that I haven’t seen it…but I don’t think you can take much from games with the Barbarians. It’s an exhibition game, and there seems to be unspoken pressure to play at least some exhibition rugby.

        They are always a scratch team, and generally so is the home side – made up of whoever is available, and often 3rd choice or worse, as you say. I wouldn’t worry too much, the games in August should be more indicative.

        1. Agreed. All we really learned, imo, is that some of the fringe players we all thought were quite poor are in fact quite poor. And that Faletau is worth looking at vs a ‘real’ team, which we also knew really.

          I am hopeful this means the end of Bennett being selected and calls for Stoddart at 15.

  5. This was a game against the Baba’s and one that I enjoyed – despite the tone of my piece – but it’s also not one that really provides the platform for world cup success that I had wanted. Playing in and open and free game is something Wales can do till the cows come home but to win World cup games you need to be able to close a game out. I’m all for the Baba’s tradition, but I’d much prefer Wales to succeed at the world cup, or at least not fail abysmally.

    I would stand behind my comment that Mike Philips was once the most effective man in world rugby and he can be again. When you have a Scrum half of Philips size and strength playing well and he can do great things and free up a lot of space for his back line. One of my favourite aspects of his game however – and what leads me to believe he used to be the most effective man in world rugby – is his ability to put others off of his game. Some of the best scrum halfs I have ever played with have this nack, and Philips has the ability to bring this to the international stage. He may not be a player who provides quick delivery but depending on the game plan he can still be instrumental.

    Brew may have been caught out of position, but his passion and drive were enough for me to consider his game to be a good one.

    To clarify what I said on Henson, he can be the link man wales need, he tried a few kicks that didn’t come off, but when he did pass his showed the speed an accuracy. Basic points I know but ones that are often lacking in Wales’ centres.

    1. Phillips is a decent rugby player on his day (rare as those are), but he is a terrible scrum half, and he fails at the basic duties of a 9. Shocking, slow, inaccurate pass and that’s after he finally arrives at the breakdown once defences have re-alligned. His box-kicking is poor, as is his spacial awareness and he has no rugby brain (a common trait amongst Wales players) whatsoever.

      He’s an angry man playing rugby, yet somehow he seems to be worthy of so much praise because he ‘gets in people’s faces’ and puts them off their game. Congrats to the man for that, shame he’s still sh*t at his main duties. Wales’ backline will continue to be useless as long as he’s at 9 shovelling rubbish ball.

      The sooner Wales get rid of useless liabilities like Powell, Phillips and Byrne the better.

  6. lee byrne is a class act! he has been plagued with injuries! but was on fire in 09 till he got injured and kearny got the starts and the credit. phillips is like o’leary for ireland i don’t like that style of 9 and i think ireland play better with a quicker passer like reddan but his defense ain’t great. i’d have phillips over o’leary any day. powell is very one dimensional and ot international standard!

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