Six Nations Preview and Prediction: Wales

wales grand slam

Home ground: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.

Interim head coach: Rob Howley

Strengths

From Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins at the coalface through skipper Sam Warburton to George North looming large out wide, Wales possess performers capable of influencing Test matches. A well-worn cliché – form is temporary, class is permanent – can provide comfort.

While the announcement of Howley’s 35-man squad a fortnight ago undeniably exposed a lack of depth in certain positions, there were encouraging inclusions. Eli Walker’s electric feet can light up the tournament. More pressingly, Justin Tipuric must have earned a prolonged period at openside, even if his captain must be shifted across the back row.

There will be no dearth of creativity. There never is. But this Wales side has to incite structure. In the midst of an injury catastrophe, the pack can still find parity with the help of fit-again trio Ian Evans, Ryan Jones and Richard Hibbard. From there, all eyes go to the midfield, where Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies have Lions places to win. A sleeping dragon is still a dangerous one.

Weaknesses

Rarely can Grand Slam champions have headed into a defence of their credentials shrouded in such uncertainty. Seven successive defeats – November’s 26-19 reverse to Samoa the most ignominious – will have left a psychological scar, despite Warburton’s protestations to the contrary.

Overwhelming factors in this horror trot have been worrying lapses of physicality and composure at crucial points. Unfortunately, these are not easy facets to improve. Tellingly, there was no tortuous trip to Poland this time round, perhaps in a bid to preserve the dwindling reserves Wales have left. Howley has as much to prove as his charges. The slide has to stop.

Player(s) to watch: Dan Biggar and James Hook

The cruellest of critics might argue that Rhys Priestland’s ruptured Achilles tendon has created an essential opportunity for change at fly-half. They’d have a point. Quite frankly, the Scarlet’s stuttering decision-making was crippling Wales.

Circumstances have now decreed that Biggar and Hook – probably in that order, with the mercurial Perpignan man coming off the bench – will share the first-receiver slot, and with it a crucial role in reviving Wales. With bundles of talent outside them, Mike Phillips or Lloyd Williams occupying fringe defences and Leigh Halfpenny smashing goals over from everywhere, pragmatism and territory will be the order of the day.

Still just 23, Biggar has been steady without ever reaching the realms of spectacular in Ospreys colours. Now, though, he can lay foundations for an extended run ahead of some promising young pretenders. Four years his senior, Hook might just be starting to sweat. It would be a great shame if his considerable skills were banished to Gavin Henson-like obscurity.

Last season: 1st

It is so easy to lean on retrospect, but the glorious Grand Slam did offer subtle hints at troubles to come. Victory in Dublin came against the run of play, only twin sin-binnings helped to squeeze past Scotland and Scott Williams literally stole triumph out of Courtney Lawes’ paws at Twickenham in the final stages of a cagey contest. Not one match featured a prolonged, coherent display.

Even so, the Six Nations solely places stock on the final result. Led by Dan Lydiate’s manic tackling, the Welsh emerged unbeaten. The same bloody-mindedness this time would be marvellous.

Prediction: 4th

The tribalism of local competition will act as an invigorating inspiration for those who have faltered in recent months, but the road to redemption is long. In this most open of years, travelling to France represents an extremely tough proposition. Moreover, Ireland and England are resurgent. More agony awaits, I fear.

By Charlie Morgan

Follow Charlie on Twitter: @CharlieFelix

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19 comments on “Six Nations Preview and Prediction: Wales

  1. “There will be no dearth of creativity. ”

    Is this now a bit of an incorrect cliche for Wales? Like England and the ‘massive pack’ theme

    Where will this creativity be coming from? They won’t play Hook and, whilst I like Biggar, he’s not hugely creative.

    Mike Phillips is certainly not creative. Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are all about the power, as are Cuthbert and North, and Ha’penny, whilst very good, is not a Christian Cullen-type fullback

    I can see some creativity available in Hook and Eli Walker, but will they be picked?

    • Thanks for your comment, Pablito. I take your point about Biggar and Roberts — those two are primarily crucial in structuring territory/phase-play.

      I’d argue that however plays across the back three — H’penny, North and either Walker or Cuthbert — are extremely competent all-round footballers. You only need to look at North’s offloading to see that. Likewise Davies, whose running lines are very intelligent also. It’s not fair to see his game is based solely on power. As for Phillips, his snipes (at best) are creative given their timing. Obviously at worst his service is extremely clunky.

      • Perhaps I am thinking of Phillips over the past year or so, certainly vintage Philips could be very good.

        As for North, his off-loads are good, but that’s not really creativity. And the same for Davies – whilst he has definitely stepped up a level over the last couple of years, I think creative is a step too far.

        I guess my thoughts hinge around the fact that they don’t have a creative play-maker with the exception of Hook (who is often ignored) or any elusive runners with the possible new exception of Walker

        Wales over the past couple of years seem to be more about power than subtlety – and to be fair, apart from playing southern hemisphere opposition, it has generally worked for them

        • I hope Walker gets picked. I tire of the attempt to smash our way up both wings – at the moment Cuthbert looks the better footballer than North so I want a Cuthbert/Walker pairing – North needs to play himself back into contention.

  2. “Victory in Dublin came against the run of play” – tosh. Wales were all over that match, it was disappointing to see them let Ireland back into it (sin bin a factor) but with a tiny margin in it at the end Wales played phase after phase from their own tryline, gaining yards with each attack. They looked like scoring without the supposedly dubious penalty, they had Ireland on the rack. Yesterday I read on this blog that Wales were a “suprising” win in Ireland, now I read that it was further against the run of play. Is there an agenda here that finds it impossible to give Wales enough but grudging acknowledgment for squeezing out fortunate but incoherent and unattractive wins?

    I know you do and will further disagree but it’s disappointing seeing a Welsh Grand Slam now written off as a series of lucky breaks for them. “stole” victory at Twickenham or finally took advantage of their superiority and pressure?

    • I hate to do this twice in two days but I agree with Brighty. Last year Wales won the Grand Slam. In every game of rugby there are telling moments; and last year they went in Wales favour, so fair play to them. Us Englishmen can not forget how bad we were in the first two games against Italy and Scotland. (Have we forgotten the two charge downs?).

      Anyway, in saying that, I did predict that Wales were out performing their actual ability, and whilst I do think they are better than they played in the Autumn, is it more likely to be somewhere between the hype of the 12 months ago and the feeling around them right now.

      I always raise this issue, but I will again. Warburton was fantastic during the world cup in 2011; but for a long time since has been distinctly average. Is he a fantastic player out of form for a year and a half? Or just an average international player playing out of his skin for 6 months? Lets be honest, only time will tell on that question.

      I could probably pose that question about a fair few Wales players to be fair, but Warburton stands out to me.

      • Jacob – I fear that George North also has a lot to prove.

        I know what you mean about playing level – if we were sitting here now with 4 or 5 victories out of the last 7 matches then I’d be able to say case proven, but I can’t. As a fan I’m predisposed to say that what we did in the Slam and the WC really is our true ability when we knuckle down to it (I think Telfer has some wise words in the Daily Mail this morning).

        • I agree on George North, I was going to throw his name out there as well but decided not to. Priestland is certainly another one.

          • Some players do burst onto the international stage and then either get ‘found out’ or lose form perhaps it goes to their head maybe subconsciously in some instances.

            Andy Powell was another who looked awesome then faded. His was clearly a matter of big headedness.

            I think Chris Ashton is looking like he might be similar. I would give him more chances before i right him off though. Also we don’t really have anyone else.

  3. Telfer doing his best for the Scottish Independence campaign in that article .

    On that Welsh players can be lazy comment if there is any truth in it it’s because lack of depth in certain positions has meant that certain players felt they couldn’t be dropped no matter what .I think Gatland has done his best to dispel all that although certain players “loss of form ” (you know the main one or two without mentioning names ) seemed to drag on and on without any sign of them dropping out of favour .

    Whether Howley cracks the same whip remains to be seen but a current pre-verdict jury count wouldn’t look too good.

    In some respects Wales go into this years game with Ireland in similar shape to last year , rubbish form in the Heineken and a shed load of injuries and the pundits giving Ireland the favourites tag . In truth there is usually very little between these two sides nor the standard of players overall though Wales have had the edge in the last three encounters . I would like to hope that this particular run will continue on Saturday . Ridiculous kick off time though hardly enough time to water your tonsils pre game .

    Disappointing Charlie that with your surname you have to encourage the al cliche that Wales only fall into winning Grand Slams when everyone elses minds are somehow elsewhere !

    • Thanks for your comments, guys.

      Pontylad, my surname means I am harsher on Wales than most — I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to watching them. If it seems I have not given due credit to the GS, I apologise. It was an outstanding achievement, like the RWC built on new-found doggedness and determination close games out.

      I have to say, though, that even at the time I had my concerns. They simply did not hit their potential throughout last 6N. A combination of RWC expectation and Priestland meant performances were indecisive. Brighty will take issue for returning to Dublin, but that was a burgle of a win — Wales were 13-5 down after 43 minutes and 21-15 down with five minutes left.

      Against Scotland, the margin of victory was 14 points, and one try was scored while the visitors had two in the bin. Twickenham was a cagey affair that, in truth, either side could have won. Again Gatland-infused spirit won out.

      Sorry for the essay, but I find it hard to be impartial with Wales…sometimes pessimism is the best way to hide that!

      • Sorry Charlie as you say Welsh supporters are often the teams harshest critics .

        Just I remember the stats for the Irish game showing Wales had the majority of possession ,territory ,most turnovers ,passes made etc with Ireland topping the tackle count which doesn’t suggest that Wales won against the run of play , The only area we fell down on was the line-out (same old) and probably discipline at some crucial points.If we had lost I would have felt like some of the recent Australian games that it was one that we let get away from us .

        With Scotland at no point did I think they could beat us .

        England fair enough that was a 50-50 game probably the non try to snatch a possible draw at the end would have reflected the game itself .Still to win at Twickenham is not to be sneezed at as the All Blacks found out.

        Italy game was ruined by the ref.

        For France we were nervous but did what we had to unlike some other sides that have fallen at the final hurdle.

        Anyway we all get a bit touchy in these run ups to big games !

  4. I hope Ollie Kohn get’s his chance. Shame England have never taken a look at him in my opinion. Kohn pushing behind Jones would probably be the strongest right hand side of a scrum in the international game.

    I wonder if a poor 6N will actually benefit Welsh rugby in the long run, i.e. will the WRU take more action other than some rhetoric and establishing a talking shop if there becomes a clearer correlation between health of the regional game and performance of the national team?

    Regardless of final position I would like to see Wales get back to their roots. It seems the recent strategy has been our backs are bigger than yours so we will win the contact. Very little flare/vision/creativity/skill on display of late in my opinion and the spectacle the poorer for it.

    • Good point about Kohn.

      He may be a massive bloke but he fits right in with Quins’ mobile game, so he’s not as lumbering as he may sound.

      • Exactly, OK he’s not going to get up in the air like Parling or have the athleticism of Launchbury but he’s brutal in the tight, carries really well and has enough skill for the Quins continuity game.