Wales at rock bottom after England defeat
The table doesn’t lie and right now it makes grim reading for Wales with a turbulent couple of weeks having culminated in a third successive defeat in this Six Nations.
Following the 20-10 loss at home to England, Warren Gatland’s team are rock bottom of the table with two away games left to play against reigning champions France and a much-improved Italy who will be licking their lips.
That harsh reality was emphasised by former skipper Sam Warburton as he spoke on the BBC after the Principality Stadium clash.
“Wales are minus 62 points. Italy are minus 30 and they have played Ireland and France. Wales have got France to come. It’s not going well at all. They are quite far off it at the minute,” he said.
“Italy have confirmed in this Six Nations that they have moved on significantly. Wales away to them is now a massive game. Italy will be smelling blood big-time. That’s going to be enormous for them.”
Clearly, it was far from the ideal build-up to the England match for Wales with the fixture still in doubt on Wednesday amid the possibility of a players strike over contract issues.
Skipper Ken Owens was quick to stress that can’t be used as an excuse for the defeat and both he and coach Gatland made a point of praising the effort of the players against such an unsettling backdrop.
Yet while the effort may be there, the end product just isn’t.
Unfortunately, it was the same story as in the opening two matches against Ireland and Scotland.
Once again, Wales were simply unable to convert pressure into points with their inability to capitalise on entries into the opposition 22 now becoming something of a recurring nightmare.
Their solitary try was gift-wrapped for them, with Max Malins’ pass ending up in the lap of opposing wing Louis Rees-Zammit who sped away for a run-in. In terms of creating a score themselves, it was a case of nada, nothing, zilch.
England’s game-plan was pretty limited to say the least, as they repeatedly hoofed the ball up the air.
But at least when they got in the red zone, they made the most of their opportunities, posting three tries through some pretty efficient finishing.
So for the third game in a row with Wales, we have seen a stark contrast between them and their opponents when it comes to points return from 22 entries.
It was a tough but sadly familiar watch, summed up by two passages in quick succession just before the break.
First they went through some two minutes of attacking, with 14 phases of persistent probing finally seeing them cross the 22 courtesy of a Rees-Zammit line-break off a delayed pass from fellow wing Josh Adams.
They were now in the shadow of the sticks and it was all about delivering the finish. But a series of forward carries failed to deliver any really big dents and, following the nineteenth phase, the chance disappeared as Taulupe Faletau became isolated off a pick-and-go, enabling Alex Dombrandt to pounce for a jackal penalty.
A couple of minutes later, they were back again, with prop Gareth Thomas the unlikely man to slice deep into the 22 off an Owen Williams pass. But after eight phases, with the line within sight, we ended up with the same result as Lewis Ludlam got in over the prone Adam Beard to win the relieving penalty.
In both cases, the defender was able to lock himself on the ball ahead of the supporting players in red getting to him.
That breakdown area was again the Achilles heel at another prime attacking opportunity 15 minutes from time when the game was still in the balance at 15-10.
From a scrum midway inside the England half, Mason Grady – who had a decent debut – was sent hurtling into the 22, but the hosts failed to clean out efficiently and the turnover ensued.
A few minutes later, there was one last big opportunity off a lineout in a highly promising position. Grady’s co-centre Joe Hawkins carried strongly into the 22, but after seven phases it all petered out once more as Keiran Hardy’s pass off a ruck flew in front of Rhys Carre and went to ground enabling England to counter.
Yet again the wind had gone out of Wales’ sails, momentum had been lost and the crowd quietened.
So, as has been the case throughout this Championship so far, golden chances were blown.
By way of comparison, England didn’t do anything particularly spectacular, but they got the job done when opportunity knocked.
Their first try, on 18 minutes, was straight off the training ground, with an inside pass from Owen Farrell off a scrum seeing winger Malins make the line break and then it was down to quick ruck ball, good hands and an acrobatic finish from Anthony Watson.
That gave them an 8-5 interval lead. Wales did briefly go ahead when Rees-Zammit pulled off his interception 46 seconds into the second half, but they were soon behind again.
One roll too many on the deck from Owen Williams led to a penalty which saw them pinned in their 22 and that’s where the English forward machine cranked up a gear, with a succession of muscular carries and cleanouts culminating in a spinning Kyle Sinckler being driven over by the supporting Ludlam.
The message to Wales was clear. That’s how you do it when the whitewash comes in sight.
There was to be a similar lesson for the score that ended the contest five minutes from time. England’s persistent kicking strategy paid off as Leigh Halfpenny spilled a bomb and after that they kept their foot on the throat with more incisive carrying and cleaning out sucking in the defence and then simple hands putting Ollie Lawrence over in the corner. And that was that.
It was England’s biggest victory in Cardiff since 2003 and their first win at the Principality Stadium since 2017.
For Wales, it’s been their worst start to a Six Nations since 2007, while this latest defeat will see them drop to tenth in the world rankings.
A closer look at the tournament table makes even more worrying reading. They have scored just three tries and conceded 12. That is the stuff of wooden spoons, all the more so with two road-trips to conclude their Championship campaign.
Among the interested observers in Cardiff on Saturday evening was the last Wales coach, Wayne Pivac, who was working alongside Warburton for the BBC.
He highlighted the attacking deficiencies of the men in red, saying: “Over the three games now, they have had many opportunities in the 22 and they are not converting.
“You have got to have that urgency in that red zone. Five, ten metres out, that’s where players have got to get hungry. It doesn’t matter what number is on your back. The closest guy has got to be in there, get his height right and just blow that defending player out of there to get quick ball.
“England made their tries look simple in the end through good carries and excellent quick cleanout which gives you that speed of ball.”
Echoing this point, Warburton said: “I call it the alpha test. It’s power v power and who wins. When England got within five metres of that try line, they just won those small inches and gradually got over. They just had more power when they were in attack.
“When they cleaned out, they were flying in. You have to approach it like you are tackling someone when you are a clean out player. You go in there and you smoke someone and you get them out of there. Wales just seemed to flop in to a few too many rucks. They weren’t cleaning out with the tenacity they should do.
“The guys coming onto it have to smash through the ruck to create momentum and Wales just didn’t do that.”
The former Lions skipper added: “Wales are really struggling to score. They didn’t create much in attack and England won the breakdown battle. Even if they weren’t winning ball, they were having players in there making a mess of the ruck and slowing it down, while they were also more powerful off nine. That was the game for me.”
Giving his verdict, head coach Gatland said: “I can’t be critical of the effort. They went out there and tried really hard.
“We turned the ball back over on too many occasions and dropped a couple of high balls – that was pretty frustrating – and gave away some penalties.
“The mistakes we made which shifted the momentum back to England were pretty critical moments.”
After so much focus on whether the Wales players would actually take the field, it seems appropriate that the final word should go to Ken Owens.
“The last two weeks have obviously taken a toll for a number of different reasons, but we can’t use that as an excuse,” said the Scarlets hooker.
“A lot of things have gone on. The decision was made, we have drawn a line in the sand.
“The 23 that went out there put in a massive shift for 80 minutes. We were right in the game throughout. I can’t question the effort of the squad. We fronted up.”
Looking at the all-important bigger picture, he concluded: “Welsh rugby has got to work together as a whole, every stakeholder, we’ve got to come together and improve.”
Whether Wales can make the improvements they need to get a win out of this Six Nations remains to be seen. Now it’s on to Rome.
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