Wales off to a perfect World Cup start with Portugal win but must step up a gear for Australia
How best then to sum up Wales’ World Cup campaign so far? Well, the words of former skipper Gareth Thomas provide a pretty decent starting point.
“I feel Wales are running out of their get-out-of jail cards,” declared the man known throughout the game as Alfie, speaking on ITV.
You can certainly see where he is coming from.
In both of their group matches, Warren Gatland’s team have been hugely reliant on the final play going their way.
Against Fiji in Bordeaux, they were a last-gasp spillage by Semi Radradra away from potentially losing the game.
And then, in Saturday evening’s clash with unfancied Portugal in Nice, it again came down to the very final passage, with Taulupe Faletau going over to claim the bonus point that could yet prove so decisive in Pool C.
As Alfie intimates, you can’t keep on riding your luck like that forever and it will surely run out versus Australia next weekend unless the failings that have emerged so far are sorted out.
If truth be told, the way the Portuguese game ended was one of the few positives to come out of the contest from a Welsh perspective amid an unconvincing 28-8 win.
They had been expected to cruise to victory against a team featuring just one player who plays top flight rugby in the shape of Perpignan hooker Mike Tadjer.
But it proved to be anything but a cruise as they ran into distinctly choppy waters.
For much of the time, they navigated themselves into trouble.
They were disjointed, inaccurate, pedestrian, sloppy, unstructured and generally pretty dire. Other adjectives are available and I am sure you will have a few in mind.
The raw stats do not make pleasant reading. They were guilty of 19 turnovers, amid a litany of handling errors, while they lost four lineouts and three scrums on their own ball.
That comes on the back of 34 missed tackles and 17 penalties conceded against Fiji. Suffice to say, there have been major issues and, coming back to the original point, you won’t keep on getting out of jail if the assorted issues are not resolved.
It would, of course, be remiss of me not to pay credit to Portugal for the significant part they played in Wales’ stuttering display.
They succeeded in slowing down Welsh ball at the breakdown and competed hard at the lineout, with good reward.
Then, when it was their turn to attack, they were true to their pre-match promise. They had talked about running rugby being in their DNA and that became apparent right from the outset. They were the more fluid of the two sides with ball in hand and played with a counter-attacking enterprise which brought back memories of the France team their coach Patrice Lagisquet graced in the late 1980s.
They played the better rugby in open play and if just a couple more passes had stuck they would have deservedly added to their solitary try, a perfectly worked lineout move straight off the training ground.
It’s been 17 years since Portugal last featured in a World Cup. It’s good to have them back.
From a Welsh point of view, the game brought to mind one of those autumn internationals against a Tier Two nation, with a much-changed side struggling to put together a coherent performance.
Lacking any kind of fluency, they had to turn to route one rugby to get over the line, in every sense. It was job done eventually, just about, but, as Gatland admitted, it wasn’t pretty.
There were 12 changes from the Fiji game in the end, following the late withdrawal of flanker Tommy Reffell with a tight calf. It was a big opportunity for the players coming in to stake a claim to be involved against the Wallabies.
Yet, if we are being honest, not many will have advanced their cause on that front.
One player who did put his hand up was Rio Dyer, who backed up his fine showing from his last start, against England at Twickenham.
He was the one Welsh back to regularly breach the first line of defence with his footwork and weaving, making 71 metres from his nine runs, while his competing in the air was another plus.
Gatland was clearly impressed, given his post-match comments, “I thought Rio looked sharp on the wing. I am really happy with his aerial stuff. It was excellent. He was good in the air and worked hard. He gives you 100 per cent,” he said.
Whether Dyer has done enough to force his way into the starting line-up to face Australia remains to be seen.
Louis Rees-Zammit produced a couple of moments that would suggest he has to be in the side. There was his classy finish for the opening try, as he put just the right weight on his kick behind his opposite number, enabling him to regather on the bounce and scoot over.
Then there was the way he sliced through in midfield and measured the moment to give a one-handed scoring pass to Gareth Davies – only for the try to be disallowed for obstruction by Tomas Francis.
In Josh Adams, you have another proven finisher, not forgetting that huge tackle against Fiji. So it’s tough for Dyer to force his way in, but you would certainly expect him to make the 23.
Elsewhere, Chris Tshiunza was a plus, putting in a decent 80 minute shift, producing some dynamic carries, finishing joint-top tackler and leaping well in the lineout to show he can do a job in the second row, which is important given the balance of the squad.
At the other end of the scale experience-wise, it was good to see Faletau getting back up to speed at No 8. He showed he’s still got good gas with the way he chased down flanker Nicolas Martins to prevent a try in the first half and then came that all-important touchdown in the final play, as he picked up from the back of a wheeling scrum and spun his way to the line, skittling three defenders out of his path.
Giving his thoughts on the 32-year-old, who was sidelined by a calf problem during the summer, Gatland said: “With Taulupe, the more game-time he has, he gets better. That’s why, even with the short turnaround from the Fiji match, we wanted to give him some more rugby.
“I thought he did some really good things and he’ll continue to get better. He’s worked hard. He made some good decisions in terms of that tackle and scoring the try, hit and spin. Probably not many people would have been able to score from that situation.”
As for the stand-out Welsh performer, well that was someone who wasn’t even supposed to be in the 23.
But with Reffell ruled out at the eleventh hour, Jac Morgan stepped in at No 7 and responded with a Player of the Match performance.
It’s another highlights reel to add to his growing collection. He broke the tackle of centre José Lima out wide before releasing Rees-Zammit for the opening try, he burrowed his way over from close range for a score of his own just before the hour mark and then ripped the ball away in contact to set things in motion for Gareth Davies’ disallowed effort.
There was also some trademark jackling, some surging runs and his usual all-out commitment in defence. He really is some player.
Morgan is nailed on to start against Australia, but it’s not so clear cut when it comes to squad co-captain Dewi Lake. Now the Ospreys hooker offers a great deal with his carrying, as demonstrated by the way he powered over off his own tap penalty just before the break.
But then, on the resumption, three of his lineout throws failed to see possession retained in quick succession, as prime attacking positions were spurned amid a steal, a loss under pressure and an overthrow.
Lake made way for Ryan Elias soon after that trio of misfires and one wonders whether the Scarlets front rower may just get the nod for the No 2 jersey versus the Wallabies. It’s going to be a big call.
Whatever happens, Wales can’t afford the lineout to go awry in that game, while the same goes for the scrum.
Then there’s the ball retention, not forgetting those missed tackles and penalties conceded versus Fiji. So lots to work on. But at least they will be doing that work with the maximum ten points in the bag, which is not to be sniffed at.
As I say, the last of those points secured – the Faletau four-try bonus – could yet be so crucial.
If Fiji beat Australia in Saint-Etienne this evening – which is certainly not out of the question – it creates the possibility of three teams in the pool finishing with three wins and then it would all come down to bonus points and potentially points difference.
For Gatland, the last-gasp Faletau try came as an early birthday present, as he turns 60 today.
“We were conscious of how important it was to get that bonus point at the end,” said the Kiwi coach.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we got the job done in the end.
“A few guys looked a little bit rusty not having played together for a while and we tried to play too much rugby early. The lineout didn’t function as well as we would have liked and we were probably a little bit lateral at times. But we will take the win and move on.
“People had an opportunity to put their hand up and we will go back and review that and see which guys did perform well. It’s good that we’ve given nearly everyone in the squad some rugby. Now we can start looking forward to Australia.”
Finally, we return to Alfie for him to expand on his point about those get-out-of-jail cards.
“They did perform well against Fiji, but ultimately Fiji blew it at the end,” he said. “Then you look at the Welsh performance in this game and you can see so many errors, so many mistakes.
They can not afford to make those errors or give the spaces to a more talented team, which Australia will be. The Wallabies will see the spaces and they will make the passes stick.”
We now wait to see just what the context of that match will be in terms of the group, with so much hinging on events in Saint Etienne later today.
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