Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Long Time Coming

They say good things come to those who wait and my goodness were we made to wait for it. 22 games against the Southern Hemisphere’s top three without the sweet taste of victory; the equivalent to a whole Pro 12 season of defeats. At times victories have flowed like wine – Triple Crowns, Grand Slams and even Twickenham victories – but SANZA scalps have been more rare than a Welsh rugby story in the national press.
Two victories and a draw against Australia is the only return they’ve had from them since the turn of the millennium; the last of those was six years ago. Wales had come close so many times only to fall short. There were more bridesmaids than a whole series of ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,’ but precious little in the way of brides. Last week it all changed. The wait came to end and Wales finally downed a southern hemisphere giant, beating South Africa for only the second time in their history.
It is true that Wales didn’t play as well as they did against the All Blacks or Australia, but after too many years of being heroic losers, just winning feels great. Though, even not performing to the best of their ability, they were the better team on the day. They have been a better team for most of the autumn.
This autumn Dan Biggar has been the star of Oscar winning standard, but Saturday he became Best Director. He manoeuvred players, dictated play and spoke with authority to his charges. His talent has previously come undone by youthful overconfidence that could have been misconstrued as arrogance or, sometimes, ambivalence. Over the past year or so he has matured fantastically and no such complaints can be levelled at him now. On Saturday, his directing would have had Steven Spielberg cooing.
When Biggar took the shirt the feeling was that he was there simply as a stop gap, keeping the jersey warm for whomever would eventually fill it long term. However, after this autumn, the WRU should consider getting the 10 jersey tailor made for Biggar because it’s difficult seeing the future lying anywhere else.
Outside him, Jamie Roberts had one of his best series in a Wales jersey. The Parisian lifestyle seems to suit Roberts and his Vespa, but now it may be rubbing off on the pitch too. The Racing Metro centre carried fearlessly and tackled ferociously in all of the games against “the big three.” Faced with Christian Leali’ifano, Jean de Villiers and Sonny Bill Williams, Roberts got the better of them all this autumn.
The other side of Dan Biggar was Rhys Webb. Where Wales have spent previous years trying to use the size and strength of Mike Phillips to wear teams down, Webb has been a willo the wisp around the set piece. His passing has been quick and precise, whilst his willingness to snipe around the breakdown means defences can’t switch off for a nano second.
Tries against Australia and New Zealand were almost followed up with one against South Africa, which would have really capped an extraordinary autumn for the Ospreys nine. The argument for Mike Phillips has always been that he is an extra flanker, but with Lydiate and Warburton playing as they have this autumn, who needs one?
Warburton barely put a foot wrong and - like Roberts – proved himself able to walk among the finest the world has to offer in his position. Warburton carried and tackled excellently as well as becoming one of the nations finest lineout options. However, it is at the breakdown that most modern day opensides will be judged and Warburton is an exemplary operator at the ruck. Virtually immovable when protecting the ball and fights for the opposition’s possession like a ferret in a rabbit hole.
In front of Captain Sam the work in the boiler house was tremendous. The work rate and ability of Alun Wyn Jones has long been acknowledged but who should partner him in the second row has been a difficult one. Evans, Davies and Charteris have been sufficient answers in the past, but Jake Ball has pushed expectation even higher with a tough gritty performance.
In the front row, Ball’s Scarlets teammate, Samson Lee showed more than incredible maturity to stamp his authority on the scrums and helped debunk the myth of the scrum time lottery. Lee played more minutes than any other prop for any nation this autumn, he gave away no penalties any game. He was just a reliable around the park as he was packing down and on Saturday he tamed The Beast.
Warren Gatland created plenty of controversy when he left Adam Jones out of his squad, but it was a shrewd move that worked fantastically. Samson Lee proved he is good enough for the international scene whilst Adam Jones looks fitter, fresher and competitive.
It’s hard to remember an autumn that was exited with such excitement and promise from a Welsh perspective. Important players are peaking at the right time and a new game plan seemed to be coming together.
Sure, the lineout stuttered like Arkwright in Open All Hours and the Fiji game was diabolical. However, this autumn must be seen as a success. Some will say that Wales’ victory is diminished by the number of players unavailable to the Springboks. Lets not underestimate how good a South Africa side this was. Of the starting XV that beat the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship this year, 13 played a part against Wales.
Sure the quality of the rugby played wasn’t great and the tension was ramped up to nausea inducing and hand quivering levels watching. Wales were the better team on the day, but even if we weren’t we ground out a win. Isn’t that what we continue to laud the All Blacks for?
It won’t please the perpetually pessimistic doom-mongers of Welsh rugby who hang around social media like virtual Droopy Ds, but let's just stop the moaning and enjoy the win. It’s been a long time coming.
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