Errors proved key for Wales in World Cup exit
Well, it was fun while it lasted, but the great frustration is it won’t be lasting for a couple more weeks yet.
As Wales head home from France following their World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Argentina, they will inevitably be thinking what might have been and rueing a missed opportunity.
There will be a series of key issues playing on their mind. There’s the way they lost momentum either side of half time after going 10-0 up. Then there’s the way they let things slip again after moving back in front just before the hour mark.
And there’s the potential match-winning moment that just eluded them six minutes from time.
But, above all, they will be cursing their mistakes.
The stats speak for themselves on that front. There were a catalogue of handling errors amid the concession of no fewer than 18 turnovers. There were four lineouts lost on their own throw, including three in the first half when they had the game by the scruff of the neck, with a real chance to pull away.
There were also a couple of scrums that went awry, while indiscipline was a further problem amid a 12-7 penalty count and they weren’t precise enough in the air.
When you think back to Wales’ best performance at this tournament, the rout of Australia, they were pretty much error free. Sadly the same could not be said for their last eight tie in Marseille as they went down to a 29-17 defeat.
They really were their own worst enemies against a relatively limited Argentine side who didn’t play a huge amount of rugby.
Yet the truth is the Pumas deserved their victory because they came out on top in the key battle grounds.
They won the aerial contest, with the length of their kicking and their competing up in the skies. Their set piece game was spot on, particularly the lineout, and they muscled up effectively when it came down to an arm wrestle in the contact area.
However, Wales will still have that nagging feeling that they let a World Cup semi-final spot slip from their grasp when it was there for the taking.
After weathering something of an early storm, they had taken charge of proceedings and built a ten point buffer. The work of attack coach Alex King was again evident from the 14th minute try that put them in front.
Not for the first time during this World Cup, it was all about probing those midfield gaps with precise passes and astute angles. This time it was George North coming back against the grain to take an inside ball from Dan Biggar and make the half-break.
He was brought down by a fine lassoing tackle from Facundo Isa, but crucially he was able to pop up an offload to the ever supporting Gareth Davies who sent Biggar under the posts.
The conversion and a subsequent penalty followed from Biggar and Wales were in control. But they failed to capitalise on their situation, with the lineout proving their Achilles heel.
Three times they had good attacking positions and a chance to stretch their lead, but three times the set-piece went wrong. With the scrum also wobbling just before the break, the half ended in really messy fashion, enabling Argentina to cut the deficit to 10-6 through the boot of Emiliano Boffelli.
Wales had lost the numbers off their backs and lost their composure and focus, amid the concession of costly penalties.
Suddenly it was a different game. The Pumas would have gone in with a spring in their step and they still had the wind in their sails when they came out for the restart, going ahead as Boffelli twice punished further offending.
To their credit, Wales did manage to regroup and show again the clinical edge in the opposition 22 that has been their trademark during this World Cup, with replacement scrum-half Tomos Williams throwing a dummy at a ruck and scampering over to put them back in front.
But, once again, they were unable to maintain the momentum. They found themselves under the cosh on their own line and after referee Karl Dickson – a replacement for the injured Jaco Peyper – ruled Guido Petti not guilty of foul play for head contact with Nick Tompkins, the Pumas’ pick and go pressure finally told as prop Joel Sclavi burrowed his way over.
There was to be one more big opportunity for Wales in the closing minutes as replacement winger Rio Dyer broke away. However, the inside pass that could have sent Tomos Williams away for a second try wasn’t delivered and, when the ball did go out to Louis Rees-Zammit, Matías Moroni pulled off a superb cover tackle in the corner.
That was the chance gone, with a late interception try from Nicolas Sanchez rubbing salt in the wounds and giving a cruel look to the final scoreline.
So that’s the end of Wales’ World Cup journey. It’s a deeply disappointing departure, as you don’t feel they really played to their full potential on the day amid an uncharacteristically error-strewn performance.
But it is important to recognise how far they have come over the past few months. Last year saw gruesome home defeats to Georgia and Italy, while the Six Nations brought just a solitary victory.
The strides they have taken since then have been significant. It’s what we have seen time and again under Warren Gatland. Give him a group of players for an extended period and he will bring about major improvements.
The set-up is now back on a much firmer footing and the team is competitive again.
But now Gatland faces another challenge. He has already lost a huge amount of experience with Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb retiring from international rugby, while one wonders whether veteran hooker Ken Owens has also played his last Test.
Now Dan Biggar is also leaving the Test arena, while Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe will not be available any more as they move to Japan.
So it’s a real watershed moment and a new beginning as we look ahead to the Six Nations. But in the likes of Jac Morgan, Louis Rees-Zammit, Dewi Lake, Dafydd Jenkins, Tommy Reffell, Rio Dyer, Christ Tshiunza, Sam Costelow, Taine Basham and Mason Grady, he has a group of talented young players to build a side around, while it will be fascinating to see who now makes the No 10 jersey their own with Costelow facing competition from Owen Williams and potentially the likes of Ioan Lloyd and Callum Sheedy.
The final word goes to Gatland as he reflects on what has been, what could have been and what’s to come.
“A lot of people were writing us off before this tournament, saying we wouldn’t get out of the pool, so that was the first thing,” said the Kiwi coach.
“This group have worked really hard to get what they have achieved.
“The players were very down, very disappointed in the changing room, but I just said to them they should hold their heads up. They should be proud of what they have done.
“I’m incredibly proud of the work these players have put in, the coaches, the whole staff have been absolutely fantastic.
“Obviously we’re incredibly disappointed, pretty gutted. It’s one that slipped away from us.
“We started reasonably well and got to 10-0, but gave away a couple of soft penalties. Argentina were tough and stayed in the fight and you have got to give them credit and congratulate them. They hung in there. We probably weren’t at our best, but we were up against a good side who took their chances.
“We have got to take learnings and make sure we continue to grow and improve as a team. We’ve made some really good strides and we need to make sure we continue on that path. We don’t want to be going backwards. That’s a good challenge for us to accept, to make sure we continue to keep improving.
“We have got some exciting players coming through. Hopefully they will be inspired by this and will want to be involved in it going forward.”
So here’s to the future, with thanks for a far more positive campaign than most of us expected.
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