Wednesday, February 11, 2015

England Ruin Gatland's Plan

In the weeks building up to Friday much of the talk centred around Wales beating England two years previously, snatching the title from under the noses with a clinical victory in Cardiff. However, there was a great white elephant in the room. Between the Millennium mauling and Friday’s tournament opening, was a Sunday game at Twickenham that England dominated from start to end.

It was a game where England hassled and harried Wales, subduing their “little brother” in a show of power and guile that nullified the men in red. For much of Friday, the story was the same.

After a pre match show that looked like it had been bussed in from a Pasha and a tunnel stand off that was only rhythmic finger clicking away from a scene from West Side Story, the teams got underway a little over 5 minutes later than scheduled. It was part of the mind games, part of the plan.

Wales immediately hit the ground running with Leigh Halfpenny slotting a kick that was further testament to his incredible ability from the kicking tee. Then Halfpenny and Dan Biggar combined to drive England back to their own try line with two perfectly executed kicks and similarly excellent chases.

It presented Wales with a scrum in the danger zone, but it would only prove to be the start of a torrid night at the set piece. Faletau saved the blushes of Welsh back in reverse by burrowing into the scrum like a demented mole to come away with the ball. His sheer determination was only surpassed by his incredible offload. Rhys Webb scampered over for the try before ear-burstingly loud dance music blared around the Millennium Stadium and drown out any real atmosphere the fans may have created. The Welsh scrum would only deteriorate further from there.

It was clear that Samson Lee was still suffering from injury. It was a game too soon prop and possibly a stubborn decision too far for Gatland. Lee proved his worth in the Autumn Internationals, playing more minutes than any other prop and not giving away a single penalty. On Friday he was man handled by Joe Marler, a man who had been on the wrong end of Samson’s strength when playing for Harlequins.

After Friday, Dan Cole may consider a bigger wallet in order to save him having to keep Gethin Jenkins in his pocket. It’s unclear how many chances Jenkins will get or why he has been afforded so many already. However, after Adam Jones’ treatment by Gatland, Gethin appears to have more lives than a whole cattery. England had done their homework and the Welsh loosehead was in trouble. 

So too was the Welsh right wing. Stuart Lancaster and co had clearly focused on Alex Cuthbert’s weaknesses in defence. Mike Brown picked out the Bluesman when running from deep, exposing the frailties we’ve become all too aware of.

Brown would be one of England’s brightest stars on a crisp, clear Cardiff night alongside an unrelenting James Haskell. Brown consistently put England on the front foot, just as he had done in the reverse fixture last year, and his kick through for Anthony Watson to score was just reward. Gatlan'd plan was coming undone.

Wales went in at half time with an eight point lead. Then, after being 5 minutes late for the first half, Wales didn’t bother turning up for the second.

England captain Chris Robshaw and Haskell bossed the breakdown with aplomb. Ben Youngs and George Ford turned the possession into something dangerous, something punishing.

Whilst Wales kicked for safety, England kicked with intent. With ball in hand England work diligently, patiently. They marched toward the Welsh try line with relentless purpose and patience. With the exception of Richard Hibbard and Sam Warburton, Wales stood with lifeless acceptance in defence as England built their try brick by brick.

It took Wales 50 minutes to get Jamie Roberts galloping down field. A back ball at the lineout saw play shifted quickly and Roberts make hard yards. However, Wales appeared so shocked by the quick recycle that followed the ball was promptly handed back over to England.
By the time Ford kicked the final points England should have put the game further out of sight. The TMO ruled out Dave Attwood's try and Haskell almost went through the Welsh defence, posts and protector to score. Such was England's passion and hunger - exemplified by Haskell - you wouldn't have bet against him succeeding.  

After the game Haskell said, "There are no names automatically on the team-sheet, except perhaps the captain’s but that is the end of it. It is very difficult to stay in there. If you have one bad game, you are out. We are all aware of that."

Contrast that with Wales who managed to set three national records for partnerships starting together. The centre pairing of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies have started together 33 times whilst both the backrow trio and back three have started together 21 times. That gives eight players a virtual monopoly on their positions as the most in form players sit on the bench, in the stands or - most criminally - back at their regions.  How much would Scott Williams, Josh Navidi or Phil Price have loved to have been involved with Wales struggling in midfield, at the breakdown and in the scrum?

As Wales struggled for verve and attacking instinct, Liam Williams and Justin Tipuric festered on the bench; hopelessly redundant as their colleagues looked little more than hopeless. Even as George North suffered two headshots, even as Cuthbert struggled to contain England in defence, even as Haskell and Robshaw bossed the breakdown; a duo as dynamic as Williams and Tipuric were reduced to watching from the sidelines.
Then, as the clocked ticked closer to full time and Wales needed a hero, a spark of inspiration to salvage the game; Gatland's plan was to replace Rhys Webb with an ailing, one dimensional Mike Phillips.

After Scotland’s increasingly impressive performances, Warren may need a new masterplan.

Oasis - The Masterplan

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