Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Reasons to Be Cheerful

Since Craig Joubert blew his whistle to bring Saturday’s spectacle to a close, everybody has taken to dissecting every facet of the game in a bid to make more sense of it. Wielding pens like scalpels and using stats as weighing scales, the post-mortem of another Welsh defeat to Australia began.
Some fingers have pointed in the usual directions and echoed the same lazy excuses that have become as tiresome as late defeats to the Wallabies. However, the truth is, this game was different in many aspects and perhaps the most positive so far.
With 10 months to go until the Rugby World Cup starts in England, it was evident that Gatland isn’t going to rest on his laurels. Wales differed slightly from the tactics they usually implement rigidly, looking at times to offload in contact rather than simply stick the ball up the jumper. Wales showed early signs of the fabled “Plan B” rich in Super Rugby influence and it looked good, if not a little undercooked. By this time next year, with a little fine tuning, we may be lauding it.
Ironically, Australia’s winning kicks came as a result of a style very similar to the much maligned “Warrenball” as they crept ever closer and unrelenting towards the posts like a mummy in a Hammer horror.
Much has been made of Jamie Roberts’ role in that playing style in the past. A perception has been built that Roberts was something of a one trick pit pony, useful for the crash ball and little else. Where once Roberts was hailed as Wales’ best centre and a Lions’ hero, recently he has been accused of stifling the Welsh attack. At the Scarlets, Scott Williams has proved himself to be a more rounded centre and his try against England has already earned him cult hero status. Roberts needed to show his ability. On Saturday he again proved himself more than capable of competing with the World’s best; he  shattered the gainline in attack with some impressive carries and was airtight in defence. His twelve tackles smothered the usually potent Christian Leali’ifano. It will be great to see him and Williams together against Fiji on Saturday.
Roberts’ old Blues teammate Leigh Halfpenny also responded to some critics. Previously Halfpenny has seemed reluctant to join the Welsh attacking line; sitting back as though attached to the posts by bungee rope. However, during his limited time against Australia, Halfpenny showed more attacking intent. He offered another option outside the centres and an early involvement led to Wales racking up their first seven points. Now the biggest question over Halfpenny is his body position as he again left the field with a possible concussion.
At the set piece, Wales looked stronger than ever. There’s been a lot of talk about the Australia scrum since they packed down against Argentina and the Pumas gave the Wallabies a mauling. Since then the Australian scrum has improved and, though not superb, it shouldn’t be underestimated. On Saturday, Samson Lee and co gave Australia a lesson in the dark arts. The penalty try that eventually came could have been given even earlier, but that wasn’t the only set piece that went well. Wales looked solid at the lineout where they often look weak. Hibbard linked brilliantly with his jumpers to create clean, crisp possession for them to play with. If Wales stick with Webb – which they should – fast ball could prove devastating to opposition.
Warburton was fantastic all over the park, the captain leading by example. He fought for the ball at the breakdown like a wild dog scrapping for meat. With ball in hand he carried superbly and created Webb’s opener with a 30 metre break after Halfpenny and Dan Biggar had linked well. Even at the lineout, Warburton towered above those around, both literally and figuratively. Captain Sam was a definite man of the match contender to silence those who have questioned his worth.
On the opposite flank, Dan Lydiate answered all questions of his fitness and form. Starved of starts and playing time in France, Lydiate showed no signs of ring rust as he tackled relentlessly and kept Justin Tipuric on the bench for 75 minutes. Lydiate is due to return to Welsh shores after these test and regular rugby should only enhance his prowess.
At halfback, Webb and Biggar showed guile and creativity, playing at pace to create gaps in the Australian defence. Despite throwing the interception pass, Webb should take heart from the performance. The edge he has given to the team is similar to that Danny Care has provided for England. There can be no doubting Mike Phillips ability - one does not play at the levels he has with good looks and cocksure attitude alone - but his service is somewhat slow when compared to players such as Webb. 
Wales defence was pretty solid, with an impressive tackle completion rate of 91%. Unfortunately, included in the 9% of missed tackles were two that directly led to tries. Such errors are exceptions in a defence that usually gives little away and over the next year that barrier will strengthen.
So, while we will all feel like wallowing in yet another late Australia defeat, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful.
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