Before Wales travelled in hope to Australia there was ample evidence that the line-out was the team’s Achilles Heel. In the Six Nations they had been able to attack teams without the ball, but it would take more than guts and determination to beat the second best team in the world. The Wallabies on a roll in Brisbane outgunned the Welsh dominating the breakdown and Genia was able to control the match. Their physicality and relentless power tested the Welsh defence; penalties were coughed up not because of interpretation but from pressure.
In all the tests the Welsh team showed tremendous character to run the Wallabies so close, but with a less than first-rate line-out, their task was made far more difficult than it needed to be. At no time could Wales be absolutely confident of winning their own ball at the line-out and that starved the much vaunted Welsh back line of quality quick ball, and ensured that they had little chance to make a telling impact.
At last year’s Rugby World Cup, Wales had enjoyed a good return at the line-out of 87%. This though had fallen to 83% during the Six Nations in 2012 and in the series against Australia a return of 80% continued the disastrous downward trend. Australia managed an excellent 90% return in the final Test and in the first two tests a remarkable 100%. In the closest match in Melbourne Wales managed 10/14 successful throws a success return of 72%. No wonder Wales had to make twice as many tackles as the Wallabies. It says a great deal about the quality of the team that despite such a dearth of possession it was a game that Wales could and arguably should have won. Australia had studied the Six Nations well, and in particular the Welsh line-out and targeted it – it failed to stand up to the level of forensic scrutiny Deans and his team applied to it.
Physically and mentally the Wallabies possessed the required aptitudes to attack the Welsh throw and undermine their opponent’s confidence. The enforced selection of Nathan Sharpe proved to be inspired and his reading of the Welsh line-out was at times almost telepathic. But the real star was Scott Higginbotham – physically imposing, courageous and intimidating he fixated the Welsh pack, and this allowed Pocock to launch himself with impunity into the Welsh from all angles. Wales were out-thought and out-muscled up front and this was amply demonstrated by the Wallabies sustained high quality drive in the last twenty seconds of the game in Melbourne, created from an uncontested line-out.
Welsh throws into the lineout became almost a “hit and hope scenario” – you could almost hear Welsh supporters exhale with relief when a throw was actually secured. Owens, Rees and Hibbard were all inconsistent. The reasons for this can only be speculated upon but what is clear that all three were asked to make throws beyond their capability. Technically all three had issues: none held the ball with fingers on the seam for better grip, stances were too open and unstable and this in turn gave off cues to the opposition. All of which allowed the switched on Wallabies to go on the attack.
On several occasions the lineout captain failed to comprehend the situation he was facing. Thirty-five minutes into the first half in Melbourne, Wales overthrew at a line-out. They next had any worthwhile possession at the start of the second half and the Wallabies had scored a crucial try just before half-time. Wales had apparently called a throw to the back but Ryan Jones did not jump, Warburton was still recovering from a blow at a previous ruck and was in no position to compete for the ball yet that was the throw called. The ball was picked off by the marauding Pocock.
Poor communication, an over-enthusiastic throw and a lack of poise had conspired for Wales to lose arguably the most important piece of possession in the whole game. A similar situation unfolded in the 3rd Test when a successful throw led to a driving maul that lost its way and the ever vigilant Craig Joubert penalised Wales with another gilt-edged chance lost. On such small margins are international matches won or lost.
Unless Wales truly get to grips with this part of their game, then further disappointment in the November internationals awaits.