It seems hard to believe that the Wales squad that won on Saturday included 11 Lions. It’s still harder to believe that it was more or less unchanged from the 2008 Grand Slam winning squad. The bottom line may be that this was a great victory for Wales and possibly the greatest comeback in Six Nations history, but it doesn’t immediately present a platform for Wales to improve from.
To give credit where credit’s due Wales’ tries, though scrappy in parts, all came from some beautiful running and well-timed offloads, but these only took place when Scotland had already become undone, by injuries and two successive yellow cards.
Saturday was the second appearance of a surprisingly timid Wales in this year’s Six Nations, a puzzling and terrifying thought given the players Wales have at their disposal.
Wales may be missing two or three of their leading lights through injury but even with a 3rd or 4th choice scrum-half and a depleted front row, Wales have the talent to beat any side in the six nations. The only conspicuously missing aspect of Wales’ game on Saturday, though, was decisiveness, an edge that can only come from strong leadership.
Ryan Jones is an intelligent and articulate man but he is currently a shadow of his former self. He took some decent high balls but he is missing the raw pace and power that once upon a time allowed him to take games by the scruff of the neck.
Wales desperately needed someone to take the initiative and galvanise the team but once Martyn Williams was substituted, his team mates appeared devoid of ideas. By the end of the game only one Welshmen didn’t deserve to be on the losing side on Saturday, try-scorer-come-magician Shane Williams, but even he took 70 minutes to get into the game.
There appears to be a lack of on-pitch generals in the Welsh team and there are certainly no obvious contenders for Wales’ captaincy (Shane Williams out in no man’s land? Alun Wyn ‘Tripgate’ Jones? Andy ‘Follow Me’ Powell?!), and it is this that seems to be the biggest chink in their armour.
Whatever the long term solution to this problem, Wales need to shake things up immediately if they have any hope of finishing above fourth this year.
With the absence of the beautifully disruptive Mike Phillips and the feisty Dwayne Peel, Wales are in desperate need of some serious bite in their half back pairing. Though Richie Rees has put some much needed thrust in at scrum half, the only long term solution, as I see it, is to put James Hook in at fly half.
This is a move I have been hoping to see for some time now, but this is not to say I have a problem with Stephen Jones. Indeed I think Jones is quite possibly one of the greatest fly-halves in the world but while he thinks faster than most, his legs can’t quite match the pace.
Move Hook to fly-half?
If Wales were to put Hook in his favoured 10 shirt, they might stand half a chance and though question marks still remain over his tackling ability, other than his one conspicuously terrible attempt that led to John Barclay’s try, his tackling has been impressive of late.
His creativity and point scoring ability is unquestionable, but more importantly with Hook at stand-off, Wales will have the perfect opportunity to use their greatest weapon, Jamie Roberts. Hook runs at defenders with the ball in both hands rooting them to the spot as his intentions are almost impossible to read, creating the kind of holes in defences that Roberts thrives upon.
I don’t think Hook will ever fully settle in at 13 and moving him across gives Wales a chance to use one of their great unsung heroes in Tom Shanklin, or even possibly opens the door for Llanelli’s star centre Jonathan Davies.
With Peel or Phillips back behind the scrum there is a strong argument for keeping Jones’ level headed influence in at fly half, but in the short term, creating a more dynamic back line may be Wales’ only hope for improvement.
By Sam Francis