Paradise lost – Ben Wildsmith reflects on Wales’ baffling Six Nations campaign
Wales 21-Italy 22
Some days Wales is a paradise and, waking up in glorious Powys sunshine, I set off down the A470 without the gnawing uncertainty that had accompanied the drizzle days of this year’s Six Nations. It had been a confusing campaign, but Wales had shown their tenacity and the maths seemed to favour us today. A hatful of tries in Cardiff and we could finish third. Turning off towards Penderyn, I smiled at the wild horses on the Beacons and turned the stereo up. My perch for the game was the bar at the Cwm Farm Shop in Treorchy where I was joined by the Rhondda’s renaissance man: writer, artist, singer, and retired prop, Siôn Tomos Owen.
Selection for the game, once again, baffled the nation. Much has been made about Wayne Pivac’s willingness to make tough choices, as evidenced by the furloughing of Rees-Zammit and Taine Basham’s summary dismissal. What to make, then, of this week’s decision to demote our form forward, Will Rowlands, in favour of Alun Wyn Jones? Nobody begrudges AWJ running out for his 150th cap, but this felt like the sort of complacent sentimentality against which Pivac is supposed to stand.
Italy started brightly, but there didn’t seem to be too much cause for concern.
‘They always do,’ Siôn noted. ‘An initial thrust before they get knackered and the empire falls.’
There were familiar patterns to Wales’ game, though, that were troubling. Once again, the Welsh pack was committing only one player to the ruck, and it wasn’t proving fourth time lucky. Instead of providing a rapid platform for the backs, the tactic produced turnovers and penalties. Moreover, if your forwards aren’t at the breakdown, you can’t have them cluttering up the backline like photo-bombers in a wedding portrait. And the backline had its own woes. Standing so deep they were at forty-five degrees to the base of the scrum at times, it was taking three passes before they reached the gain line. This left much to the ingenuity of the wings and there were glimpses of Rees-Zammit’s lofty abilities as he glided infield.
‘He’s like a greyhound,’ Siôn explained, ‘while Adams is a terrier and Cuthbert is a horse!’
And Wales do have a fabulous menagerie of attacking threequarters to choose from, which makes the seeming lack of organised moves all the more frustrating.
Watkin jinked beautifully for a try to send Wales in at half time and we were relaxed enough to grumble indulgently about the performance.
‘What do reckon then, Siôn?’
‘I’m…baffled! 12-7 behind to Italy in the last game of the season. Duw, Duw.’
It seemed ok though, not the joyous carnival of sunshine rugby we’d hoped for, but Welsh class would tell in the end, surely?
‘We’ll win on fitness while passing like under-8s. Another pint, butt?’
The expected Italian capitulation wasn’t happening, though. The opening ten minutes of the second half were scruffy and when Lake flopped over the line for a try, reaction in Treorchy was muted as we watched the £100 ticket holders in the stadium spray understrength beer around like we’d won the World Cup. The Italian response was immediate, and it took a textbook winger’s tackle from Josh Adams to prevent an end-to-end try from Italy’s potent back three. A penalty saw them back into the lead anyway and we were reduced to diversionary conversation.
‘I’m not a fan of the green socks,’ Simon offered, ‘they offend my sense of tradition.’
‘The green socks are the only thing I like,’ countered a morose Siôn.
With ten minutes left, it was Adams again who brought the goods. Taking a pass above his head he stepped inside twice to create his own space and score what looked, for all the world, like the winning try. Both of Adams’ starring turns highlighted what an absolute natural wing threequarter he is, and our thoughts went back to Pivac’s ‘bold’ selection against Ireland when Adams was put in the centre.
‘The key,’ Siôn observed archly, ‘is to get Adams the ball, not to move him to where the ball is.’
And here, with eight minutes to go and a six-point lead, is where you find out how well a squad has been prepared for test rugby. Throughout the game, the cameras had turned on the Welsh coaches: Pivac supporting an inscrutable smirk, and Stephen Jones holding his head in his hands. Relief must have been palpable up there as Adams was named man of the match and all that remained was to offer commiserations to the plucky Italians before skedaddling off for a break away from all those endless questions about selection and Shaun blydi Edwards.
So, when Capuozzo turned the Welsh defence inside out in the last play of the game and handed Italy victory, it was hard not to feel some sympathy for the Wales coaching team. Hard, but not impossible, and Pivac’s passionless management-speak in the post-match interview certainly smoothed my path.
‘I’m off to join the queue of men punching the wall,’ Siôn advised.
Driving down Newport Road as I came home to Cardiff at sunset, a few fans were still straggling up it, their scarves and jerseys hanging off them like shrouds. They deserve better than this, and so do the players.
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