Thursday, November 10, 2016

Doom and Gloom

Almost from the first kick of last weekend’s game against the Wallabies, it was evident it would be a long day for fans in red rather than gold. With barely a minute on the clock, Australia were making ground with ease. The men from Down Under burst through a Welsh defensive line with utter ferocity, whilst Wales looked as ferocious as John Barrowman in a tutu.
Rugby League turned Aussie Rules turned Union convert Israel Folau was able to find more space than Yuri Gagarin and offload with ease. Australia managed to get themselves on the board while Wales looked like they were still on the bus. By the 13th minute, Australia had made 101 metres; Wales had made zero. Like Usain Bolt winning gold while Justin Gatlin hangs about in the blocks to get the best view. It was the tortoise versus the hare... Except the tortoise had died and resuscitation wouldn’t help. On the hour mark, Wales still hadn’t reached what the Wallabies did in that first 13 minutes, making just 96 metres; by this time Australia had racked up 543 metres and counting.
Wales had 9% possession in the first quarter of an hour. That means you were statistically more likely to meet an American who can't find their own country on a map, a Briton who trusted the government or a cat that doesn't prefer Felix, than see a Welshman holding a rugby ball. Not that Wales created much when in possession. For as much as they were frail in defence, they seemed clueless in attack. This was all the defensive weakness of the summer tour to New Zealand, but with none of the improved attack to justify it. Whilst Australia recycled ball at will and speed, the sloths from David Attenborough’s ‘Planet Earth’ would have been impatiently hitting fast forward on their Sky remote were they able to watch.
Time wore on and patience wore thin; the already ready quiet fans had become all bar silent. If Martyn Phillips can market this at the increased price of tickets, maybe he should go back to his old employers B&Q to charge customers for a new viewing area in the paint aisle and let the drying commence.
Wales’ performance was best summed up in a short spell where a penalty in their favour left them baffled as to who was skipper, a resultant 4v1 overlap was ignored in favour of continually recycling through the forwards into the previously formed ruck until the overlap was eventually spotted and an agonisingly slowly, looping miss three pass was thrown slow enough for the defence to realign and repel Wales. It was less an onslaught and more of a tickling contest. The frustration grew and a pass to absolutely nobody was picked off for a length of the field try for the sickly icing on a very disappointing cake. Lessons learned from the World Cup last year = zero.
Few players can come from this with any sort pride. Justin Tipuric managed to be better than most of his teammates – although that is hardly a compliment – but it is Ross Moriarty who comes out head, shoulders and most of his chest above the rest. With ball in hand he made the most carries, for the most metres and beat the most defenders for Wales; without it he was the top tackler on the field, completing an impressive 18 tackles.
So, we again sit and discuss the legendary ‘slow Welsh start’ and some pundits and experts quickly took aim at a familiar target. The story goes that the “uncompetitive” nature of the Pro 12 means that players aren’t battle hardened come Autumn International time. Don’t blame it on the sunshine, don’t blame it on the moonlight, blame it on the regions. However, nobody told Ireland that was the case and in Soldier Field, Chicago they put the All Blacks to the sword having taken players from the same competition with extra travelling time and less preparation.
Without doubt, the players have to take a large portion of blame, they simply didn’t turn up. The coaches too have their villainous role to play. Rob Howley did little to endear himself to already angry fans. This was is first game back in the hot seat, but fans have memories – if not recurring nightmares – of the catastrophic slip in the IRB rankings and the dreadful tour to the Far East. Many have questioned Howley’s tactics as attack coach before as Wales played with a predictable monotony that was easier to read than a Ladybird Classic and how his contract – along with a few others - got extended is baffling.
However, Wales had begun to shake off the shackles in New Zealand and played with a flowing intent that had been missing previously, the mystical “Welsh Way” of playing rugby. It’s also easily convenient to forget that Howley was at the helm when Wales won the Six Nations in 2013 and bested the old enemy in convincing and dramatic fashion on the final day.
In fact, the torturously slow start predates Howley, predates the regions and predates the Autumn International Test Series themselves. The fact has been bounced around the last time Wales won an open Autumn International was against Romania in 2002 at Wrexham. If we look at tier one teams, the reading is even more grim. The last coach of Wales who won the opening Autumn Test against a tier one team was John Lloyd in 1981. To put that in some rugby perspective; Gethin Jenkins was one year old, Tyler Morgan wouldn’t be born for 14 more years and Rob Howley was in his final year of primary school, blissfully unaware of the effects the teacher's strike would have in four years time.
In that time Wales have only witnessed victories in their opening Autumn fixture against Romania, Samoa, Fiji, Japan and USA, mostly in the 90s - although embarassing defeats against four of those five have been felt before. In that time, however, defeats have come against the Barbarians, Argentina, twice against France and the All Blacks, six times against Australia and seven times against the Springboks. To say Wales struggle in the opening test is an understatement.
Nothing can be done this Autumn to rectify the damage already done to Wales or their coaches. Even with Japan's new found giant killing status and Argentina running with the big dogs in the Rugby Championship, defeats would - rightly or wrongly - be viewed as disasters. The Springboks meanwhile are struggling; so much so, their World Cup winning former star Joel Stransky has described them as "very average" and even worried for their fate against Italy.
Wins against any – or all three – would still not eradicate the memories or questions posed on Saturday. Defeat may damage them irreparably So, for now, it’s damage limitations and a small morale boost before the Six Nations in February where huge home tests against a rampant England and an All Black defeating Ireland await. Can Howley’s much changed lineup take a step on the road to recovery against Argentina? Or will it be all Doom and Gloom?
The Rolling Stones - Doom and Gloom

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Alive and Kicking

When Rob Howley announced his team this week, selection was dictated as much by his fellow coaches as it was by circumstance.

While questions abound over who would pull on the 12 and 15 shirts, fate rather than Howley made those decisions. Wales' list of unavailable players counted to grow as the week stretched on. Captain Sam Warburton, Talupe Faletau, Scott Williams, Jake Ball and Rob Evans, were joined by Liam Williams - who failed a fitness test - and personal tragedy ruling out Alun Wyn Jones. Save for one or two surprises, the squad pretty much picked itself.

There were other decisions to be made however. With both Warburton and Alun Wyn ruled out, Gethin Jenkins seemed the obvious choice to take the armband. But what of the kicking tee.

Since Leigh Halfpenny was scuppered by the Millennium Stadium turf twelve months ago, Dan Biggar has become the place kicker incumbent for Wales. Before that fateful Italy game that ended the World Cup dream for Halfpenny - and Rhys Webb - the Toulon man had a reputation for his dead eye goal kicking.

On Thursday Howley announced that Halfpenny would again assume the mantle, despite Biggar's impressive kicking performances for Wales, Internet flooding kick routines included.

But is the decision a correct one?

It's somewhat difficult to compare the two due to Halfpenny's injury taking him out of the majority of last season. That means the last full season we can look at started in the summer of 2014 when David Bowie, Lemmy and Prince were still with us, Donald Trump was barely more than America's Alan Sugar and Brexit wasn't even a word. With that in mind, it may be difficult to judge to much on the statistics, but that won't stop us trying.

Some pre World Cup stats showed that Biggar was actually in better club/region form than Halfpenny, but doesn't give the full story. Looking solely at league stats, Biggar was indeed more accurate (86% v 76%). While some will suggest this is due to Halfpenny's range making kick more difficult, Biggar also pipped his Wales teammate solely on conversations (83% v 81%).

However, solely viewing league form seems like giving partial data. When European games are added, it changes drastically - reflected in Toulon romping to to their third Euro title in the inaugural competition post Heineken Cup.

With these included Halfpenny becomes the most accurate kicker from Saturday's match day squad with an 88.3% success rate. Sam Davies boasted an 86.8% success rate, but took significantly less shots at goal than his counterparts (39 less than Biggar and 24 less than Halfpenny). Biggar meanwhile sits in third place, but still has an 84.8% success rate. Halfpenny does however still trail in the conversion stakes, but he more than makes up for it with penalties.

However, some may say - and rightly so - that players should be picked on form rather than reputation. So, with the season still in it's infancy, who has started the 2016/17 campaign brightest?

Leigh Halfpenny has struggled slighted with conversions again, missing 3 of the 10 he has taken. His penalty rate has been exceptional though; he has scored more penalties than Biggar and Davies have attempted between (16 penalties from 17 attempts). That gives Halfpenny an overall success rate of 85.1%.

For Biggar that rate is just 80.9%; missing 3 of his 14 attempted conversions and 2 of his 7 penalties.

It's the young prodigy who is firing on all cylinders this season though. 23 year old Sam Davies is currently running at an average of 92.3% success rate. That's made up from scoring 90.4% of his conversions  and not missing a single penalty. That  makes Nigel's boy, statistically, far and away the most accurate kicker in the Wales squad.

There is a fourth place kicker in the extended Wales squad, who hasn't made the Welsh 23 for Australia. Unfortunately, the stats don't read well for Gareth Anscombe.

In his first season at Cardiff Arms Park he managed an 83% success rate. However that that has fallen to 73.7% this season. However, there is still plenty of time to turn things around for Anscombe and make sure his Six Nations hopes are alive and kicking.

Simple Minds - Alive and Kicking