Wales have flown into the World Cup quarter-finals – but can Argentina clip their wings?
So, it’s the Pumas for Wales in next Saturday’s quarter-final as Warren Gatland counts the cost of his team’s victory over Georgia.
You do well to go through a World Cup campaign without picking up a couple of significant injuries along the way.
Up until their final group match against the Georgians in Nantes, Wales had been really fortunate. The only issue had been Dan Biggar’s pectoral problem and that has cleared up.
But now their luck has run out. Taulupe Faletau’s tournament is over with the Cardiff No 8 having broken his arm during the 43-19 victory over Georgia.
It’s so sad for a man who has endured wretched luck with arm fractures during his career. It’s also an absolute body blow for Wales as he is a genuine world class player and had been getting steadily better with every game he played having sat out the summer warm-ups with calf damage.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Gareth Anscombe is a major concern having suffered a groin injury during the warm-up for yesterday’s game, which saw Sam Costelow taking over at No 10.
Anscombe walked off the pitch with his head in his hands, looking distraught, with his own rotten luck on the fitness front having resurfaced at the worst possible moment.
If it is the end of his World Cup – and his Wales career given his impending move to Japan – how cruel would that be given the torrid time he has been through over the last few years and just after he had produced one of the performances of his life against Australia.
Head coach Gatland said the 32-year-old had “pulled his groin very high up” and his condition will be assessed over the next couple of days. You never give up hope, but it doesn’t sound great, which is another huge shame.
There was a further disturbing sight with full-back Liam Williams on crutches after the game, having taken a whack on the knee. The Welsh management remain hopeful he will be fit for the quarter-final, but an anxious wait lies ahead. All in all, it was a costly afternoon in Nantes.
The immediate question to address was who should replace Faletau in the squad.
Well, that has been answered with a call-up for Scarlets scrum-half Kieran Hardy. On the face of it, that might seem somewhat left-field. It’s clearly not a like-for-like replacement, as Hardy’s regional team-mate Taine Plumtree would have been.
But when you think about it, it does make sense. As Gatland says in the press release, Wales already have a number of other options on hand in the back row. In contrast, only two No 9 were selected in the original squad, in Gareth Davies and Tomos Williams. So that’s a position where they would have been vulnerable if one of those had to pull out at the eleventh hour, as Anscombe did.
So in comes Hardy to negate that possibility and provide “extra cover and take some pressure off from a training perspective” to quote Gatland.
The next big question is who steps into the back row against Argentina?
Gatland has indicated Aaron Wainwright will likely move across to No 8 and he has shown himself more than capable of handling that role, notably in the victory over England in Cardiff back in August.
So who then takes over on the blindside flank? There are plentiful options.
Wales could look to employ two opensides, with versatile skipper Jac Morgan going to No 6 and Tommy Reffell wearing No 7. Leicester’s tigerish Reffell certainly made a strong case for inclusion with his performance against Georgia, which Gatland described as “excellent”.
It would really add to Wales’ presence over the ball and that could be invaluable versus the Pumas who were very efficient in their clearing out at the breakdown in beating Japan. Having both Reffell and Morgan on hand to form a flanking pincer movement, slowing down and pilfering possession, is a tempting option.
Their combined speed across the ground and their ability to get to the breakdown first could be one way of countering Argentina’s muscularity at the contact area.
But, as Gatland has pointed out, what you gain on the one hand you can lose on the other in terms of reducing your lineout options, with both Wainwright and Faletau having been back row targets.
The Pumas are strong in that set-piece, with Guido Petti a particular threat with his ability to get up high and steal ball. So you may need a fair few targets to hit.
With that in mind, could Christ Tshiunza be an option at 6? He is very much a genuine leaping lineout presence, while he has also shown that athleticism around the park during his cameos.
Then there is the one out-and-out 6 in the squad in Dan Lydiate, who is now back in France after dashing home for the birth of his third child. If you are looking for a serial tackling blindside to add physicality and chop down the powerful Puma carriers, he would be your man.
Then you’ve also got the adaptable Taine Basham who can play right across the back row and offers a dynamic running game.
So lots of contenders and a big decision to make.
As for full back, the ever reliable Leigh Halfpenny would be a prime candidate should Liam Williams fail to make it in time, although shifting Louis Rees-Zammit is another potential route, which would in turn open a spot on the wing for Rio Dyer, with his tireless chasing of those box kicks and his fast feet.
With Anscombe looking to be out of the equation for the quarter-final, the great fly-half debate is cut short with the fit-again Biggar surely returning at 10 and Costelow providing cover on the bench.
So that’s how things are shaping up selection-wise as we head into the knock-out stages.
As for how Wales got there, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the scale of the achievement.
If someone had said after the Six Nations that they would claim 19 out of a possible 20 points in their World Cup pool, they would have been viewed as fanciful. Yet that’s precisely what has happened.
Much of that has been down to their clinical cutting edge which was evident once more against Georgia, as they ran in six tries, including a hat-trick for the seriously rapid Rees-Zammit.
One intriguing stat is that their lowest points tally in their four group games (28) came against Portugal, with 32 versus Fiji, 40 in the rout of Australia and 43 in Nantes yesterday. That’s something else few – if any – would have predicted.
Overall, Wales have exceeded expectations and been true to Gatland’s pre-tournament prediction that they would surprise people. However, there are still things to work on, as illustrated by a dodgy period during the second half yesterday when indiscipline and creaky defence let the determined Georgians back into the game.
Both of those areas will need tightening up against Argentina who have steadily improved as the tournament has gone, culminating in a 39-27 victory over Japan in the Pool D winner-takes-all clash.
It was a performance illuminated by a superb hat-trick from Newcastle wing Mateo Carreras – a case of anything you can do Louis, I can do even better!
The head-to-head between Carreras and Rees-Zammit will be something to savour in Marseille next Saturday afternoon.
Welsh legend Shane Williams was part of the ITV commentary team during the Pumas’ triumph over the Brave Blossoms, so what’s his advice to Gatland’s gang in terms of what they need to do against Micheal Cheika’s charges?
“Match them physically,” replied the wing wizard.
“They got over the gain-line a little bit too easily against Japan. They won the collisions and the breakdown, when they had the ball, was really, really quick, which is a nightmare for defences.
“I think Wales will physically match them. They have that capability in their ranks.
“But do not let Mateo Carreras get his hands on the ball early. He was superb and took his three tries really well.”
As for Pumas’ coach Cheika, he will be looking for his team to move up another gear.
“We gave Japan a few easy entries back into the game which was unfortunate, but if we can turn that around and get better again next week, maybe we have a chance. As you go along, you have got to get better,” said the Aussie.
“What changes now is the mentality. You look at the crowd today. So many Argentinian fans have put their savings together to come for this week and next week. I feel like some of our boys have felt a bit of that pressure, that we had to win it.
“Now everyone is happy, all the crowd is happy, maybe we can just chill out and go for it, play some good footie and then we’ll see where the cards fall.”
We will indeed. On to the quarters.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.