Friday, 21 October 2011

If they tried to kick themselves.....

Add up the sum scores of Wales's lost matches in this World Cup and the aggregate loss is by just 5 points. 5 points across 3 games. James Hook missed kicks equal to 5 points in today's game alone.

Heroic losses, moral victories, unjust decisions, bad luck - call it what you will. The naked truth is that Wales had the opportunities to win each and every game in which they took part during this World Cup and failed to take them when it truly mattered. That is not the sign of a great team.

Today's match was a bit different to the agnosing defeats at the hands of South Africa and France because at no point did Wales look in control. Australia looked sharper with the ball and more aggressive without it. Warburton was in the stands, Roberts was smothered, Phillips was mostly snaffled and the scrum was weak even against a much maligned Australian front row. And for the second game in succession James Hook was preferred to Stephen Jones. Only Gatland and God know why. The three point margin flattered Wales who, for all their efforts in the tournament as a whole, ultimately flattered to deceive in RWC2011.

It's not that that Wales didn't knuckle down against Robbie Deans' men, in fact they competed very well at the breakdown even without their leader and lead jackler Sam Warburton, and were full of bluster and effort. As Michael Owen said in commentary, they just kept trying to go through Australia. Australia were having none of it. It was the hitherto ignored Berrick Barnes that did the damage, tackling above his weight, hitting the game line effectively for his try, handling superbly and pinning Wales back with some great punts, dribbles and grubbers. How things may have been different for the green and golds if Barnes had played in their other matches in place of the silky but fragile Quade Cooper. Sadly for Cooper his world cup ended as he suffered a serious cruciate ligament injury as he seemed to catch his studs in the turf.

What next for Wales? Well as fate would have it, Australia on December 3rd at the Millennium Stadium. By which time the Welsh players will have numerous Pro 12 and Heineken Cup matches under their belts and the Aussies will have had a short off-season. Wales will need Priestland and Warburton back to tidy up possession and run the show if they are to get revenge for today's defeat.

The Welsh first XV are young, and there is further talent coming through behind it. Can they overcome the mental fragility that has always tempered Welsh ambitions in the professional era? Time will tell, but on the evidence of this World Cup campaign, there's work to be done - let's hope it is kick started with a win on December 3rd.

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Saturday, 15 October 2011

Wales beaten by the better team

Legs above ahead = Spear

It seems that my crystal ball is broken, either that or it is linked to a parralell universe where just one of the following things didn't happen today in Auckland.

1. Stephen Jones was selected ahead of James Hook
2. Captain Sam wasn't sent off/didn't make 'that' tackle
3. James Hook had worn studs
4. It hadn't poured down before kick-off
5. Mike Phillips had managed to get under the posts
6. Wales's lineout had functioned
6. Leigh Halfpenny managed to sneak it over
7. Stephen Jones ever so slightly sliced his conversion

Because if any of those things had just gone the other way then Wales would be in the World Cup final next week. Alas, they are not.

The game ebbed and flowed for a short time, even if it was peppered with too much (poor) kicking.  Then Hook nailed a penalty from the touchline, as he so often does, and set about to miss 3 more kickable chances and continue to kick Wales out of the game from hand.  The nerves had not settled.

Up steps Captain Sam, Wales's hero throughout the tournament and does something that I beleive showed just how pumped up he was, a moment of emotion peeking out behind his otherwise professional demeanour that has served him and Wales so well in this fabulous World Cup.  He picked up little Vincert Clerc, legs above the winger's head, lifted his left elbow and made the body movement of a spear tackle.  Luckily for Clerc he did not follow through with the spear and the damage was far less dramatic than the Frenchmen - who lay prone for a few minutes - would have us believe   Unluckily for Warburton (and the whole of Wales) the tackle was illegal under the rules of the game and was right under Alain Rolland's nose.  Despite the protestations elsewhere the ex-Ireland scrum half had little choice but to go for the red card.  Two years ago it might have been a yellow; 10 or 15 years ago it would have been a good tackle.

At this point France won the game.  Perhaps Wales should have won anyway, due to the other mistakes and missed opportunities listed above, but the psychological lift that the French received from the extra man was evident in their fervent defence, improved scrum and destructive line out.  Otherwise they offered nothing.

Onwards Wales charged, Lydiate, Wyn Jones and Charteris working themselves to a standstill, and 2/3rds of them not even finishing the game.  Faletau had his best game in a Welsh shirt.  Phillips was at his very best in scoring his try but Hook was the weak link. Lievremont's reverse psychology may just have paid off.  Stephen Jones's introduction should have come sooner.

Many of the close calls and missed chances were within Wales's control and so I must conclude that Wales were beaten by the better team today; themselves.  France were little more than a line of blue sponges, all willing the game to end with them in front.  And, despite over 20 phases of trundling possession for the dead-on-their-feet 14 of Wales, it did.

What next for France? A thorough stuffing by either Australia or New Zealand some would suppose.  What next for Wales?  Considering the mental strength and capacity for good, swift, incisive rugby - and ignoring the seemingly meaningless play-off to come - I would hope a win against the Aussies in December and - with 3 games at home - a Six Nations championship.  Either that or this was the very best of false dawns in living memory.

Either way I am thankful for what the Welsh team have given the rugby world in this World Cup.  Heart, hope, determination, passion and skill.  Hold your heads high boys, you've done us proud.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Wales Forever

So my prediction came to pass and Wales did indeed face Ireland in a 2011 RWC quarter final. Hardly a sage-like premonition from me after Ireland's outstanding win against the Aussies. I knew that Wales were a good side, built on a base of talented youngsters, and that Ireland were also a quality side, but 10 years older - no crystal ball required.

What I did not foresee was just how good Wales would be. Like many 'proper' pundits I saw this game as a close fought thing, perhaps decided by 1-4 points either way. Ireland played well, well enough to dispatch any Wales side since perhaps the 2005 vintage, but Wales played better, 12 points better according to the scoreboard. Ireland threw the kitchen sink, the fridge, the Aga and the oak table at Wales and all were rebuffed. At no point did I ever feel like Wales would lose; that is a truly alien feeling to any Welsh rugby fan. Even when we win we like to dice with defeat, but not today.

Despite all that, just what were Ireland up to in the first 10 mins? Wales score early and Ireland get three penalties in quick succession in the Welsh half. They have Ronan O'Gara to kick the goals. They chose to kick for touch. The got nothing for their trouble. Cup rugby is about building a score and keeping pressure on opponents; plus, as IBM keep telling us, only 10% of lines out result in tries. So what were they thinking?

Whatever was going through Irish minds Wales were having none of it, Sean O'Brien broke very few tackles, BOD made little impression with ball in hand and Ronan got out kicked (from hand) by the uber-cool Priestland. After Shane squeezed in at the corner to quash any opening Welsh nerves, then the strength of body and mind that this young Welsh side forged in the cryogenic chambers of Poland came to the fore.

Ireland came out firing in the 2nd half and earned their try through the diminutive and busy Keith Earls. Then Halfpenny absorbed the aerial attacks and Wales drove through the middle of Ireland where Alyn Wyn Jones made some real ground, allowing Mike Phillips to finish with an exquisite, and necessary, dive (Chris Ashton take note). All that was left was for Jonathan Davies to score the kind of try he often produces in regional matches, showing strength and acceleration that he has not often produced at international level with ball in hand. Ireland continued to bludgeon away and showed some slick handling but they lacked the Welsh incision and were repelled time and time again.

"We deserved it" said the ever-humble Mike Phillips, he was right. The question is, can they sustain the same defensive efforts for two more matches and continue to be ruthless in attack? We'll go some way to finding out when Wales play France next week for a place in the World Cup Final. Surely the rudderless French have used up their best game in dispatching England today?

With that in mind this prophet foretells a Welsh win. Cymru Am Byth!

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