Wales beat England, at being England
Few expected Wales to beat England. Welsh pundits with 50+ caps predicted that England would win in Cardiff. But even those who foresaw a Welsh win, would never have predicted the way in which they achieved it. Wales didn’t win the game through expansive backs’ moves, loopy miss-passes or fortuitous interceptions.
Having selected a lightweight pack, when heavier options were available, many assumed that Wales would go wide, whenever possible, but they didn’t. For 80 minutes they carried direct – and hard – from 10-15m either side of the breakdown. One-out passes, with one outcome – massive physical and system fracturing collisions.
"All the hard work we put in last week showed in the last ten minutes," said try-scorer @coryhill_ after full time in today's memorable win against England in Cardiff. #GuinnessSixNations pic.twitter.com/VbDW4rVCQf
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) February 23, 2019
In short, Wales became England for 80 minutes. It was as if the entire Welsh squad had got out of the back of a Range Rover, dropped the tailgate, had a few glasses of bubbly and walked into the Principality Stadium singing God Save the Queen.
That Wales scored a try after 34 phases of sandpaper-like attrition, shows that they now have a pack of forwards that can carry into traffic, with low body angles, for 80 minutes. Wales haven’t just ‘forgotten how to lose’, they seem to have forgotten how other teams expect them to play – which is a major plus in test rugby. Well played, Wales.
Symphony for Benetton & The Azzurri
There are few teams in the world where the success of their club teams is so directly linked to the success of their national team. Scotland are one, and the other is Italy – Wales may not be far behind if you believe the rumours.
Having just two professional teams means that if your club teams are performing, then their test team will also benefit. Benneton Treviso and Italy are the perfect example. Without wishing this column to become a piece of Benneton Treviso propaganda, other than Leinster, they are the form team in the Guinness PRO14.
The win against the Dragons was as comprehensive as you’ll see all season. Benneton had 73% of the possession and 78% of the territory – that’s a level of control that neither Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May have over their teams nor oppostion.
They made 25 clean breaks and beat 41 defenders – a number that you would expect to see in an unopposed training session. But Benetton’s performances don’t exist in a Guinness PRO14 vacuum. They are reflected in the performances in the Guinness Six Nations also.
They may not have won a game, but they have been hugely competitive against Wales’ and Ireland’s ‘1.5’ XVs, and to call them second teams would be incorrect. Many have questioned Italy’s role in the Six Nations, and arguably in pro rugby. And whilst that may have been a valid question over the past three seasons, it certainly isn’t in 2019.
Stockdale is Perfect, Even When Everything Isn’t
Ireland haven’t had the dominant Guinness Six Nations that they, and many others were hoping for or expecting. Against Italy, as against England, the set piece was the major failing. For many other teams, a lineout collapse would be a problem. But for Ireland, it is deeper than that.
Ireland are a team that usually run on a lineout completion of 95%+. And with Devon Toner, Peter O’Mahony and Rory Best, it’s easy to see why. But with two of those removed, the lineout was reduced to a completion of 75% – 15 from 20. You may wonder why a paragraph about lineout failure would have Jacob Stockdale in the title.
But it is the wingers that suffer first when the core competencies fail. Slow, messy, ball at the set-piece gradually gets worse as it moves along the backline. It’s like throwing a perfectly poured pint of Guinness into the lineout, only for it to arrive in the hands of the winger as a warm can of Fosters with a dent in the side.
But it is this dented can of Fosters that shows how good Stockdale is. When it arrives in his hands, warm and with foam spitting from the ring pull, he takes it and carries it straight to the try-line. The fact that Stockdale is still performing in a squad that isn’t, is hugely positive. Well played Jacob.
Zebre Mauled to Death by a Herring
A Zebre being mauled to death by a Herring may seem like a weird glitch in the evolutionary matrix. How could a salt water fish get into a tangle with a savannah-based mammal, let alone maul it to death. But that it exactly what Ulster did, albeit in a far simpler and non-metaphorical manner.
Ulster’s lineout/catch and drive was worthy of an exhibition in the Tate Modern. It was as fine an example of modern lineout mechanics as you’ll find. No sooner had Rob Herring thrown the ball into the front, or middle jumper, then it had been recycled to the back of the maul like a vending machine spitting out a Mars bar.
That Herring scored three tries from one set-piece move is remarkable, and a reason why prudent gamblers often bet on hookers being the first try scorer. To say that Ulster scored only from set piece would be dishonest. That back play was sublime and the back three looked like they were on an ‘all inclusive’ rugby package where they could gorge on whatever they liked.
But the plaudits must be reserved for Ulster’s lineout work. It was immaculate.
Guinness PRO14 Player of the Six Nations Round 3
Why is Alun-Wyn Jones so unloved?
The English Premiership and Top 14 are usually associated with attracting big budget locks. Those giants who are worth upwards of £600,000 a year. However, the Ospreys have a player of that quality and it is rarely discussed. The fact that Alun-Wyn Jones hasn’t left his region, nor his Test nation, is probably why he isn’t held in the same regard as the best locks ever to play the game.
In modern rugby, you need to have had a price on your head. If you haven’t moved to Toulon, or Saracens, then your ‘media’ worth is worth less than those who have moved clubs. But AWJ has never really been a player who cares about the media. He smiles more on the field, as he did when he had hold of Kyle Sinckler, than he ever would in an interview.
AWJ is one of those players who will only be truly appreciated when he retires. As his performance against England showed, AWJ does the stuff that only true rugby followers will appreciate. Some questioned his carrying against England. Stating that he seemed to get hit backwards in double-tackles. Which he did. But that is the role of a lock.
They carry in the most congested defensive channel. He actually had double the carries of Courtney Lawes, George Kruis and Joe Launchbury and carried for double the distance. But perhaps his most underrated skill, as we saw against England, is his ability to punch into midfield and deliver a soft offload – a skill for Brodie Retallick is applauded, but for which AWJ gets little recognition.
If you don’t appreciate what AWJ does on the field, then you probably don’t understand what locks do, and arguably what rugby is.