Wales: The Support Acts Become Rock Stars
Few except Warren Gatland and his players thought that Wales would win the Guinness Six Nations, let alone the Grand Slam. Even the most optimistic Welsh supporter couldn’t have predicted that Wales would win five from five, especially after the first 40 minutes against France.
They were always the outsiders using the metrics of pundits, bookies and world rankings. But this was also a squad made up of players who have taken the outside arc when it comes to professional rugby. Wales’ standout players, in the large, were those who were once regarded as products with flaws. Now they are prototypes for success.
Three seasons ago Josh Navidi, Gareth Anscombe, Hadleigh Parkes, Tomas Francis and Josh Adams would have been found in TK Maxx should you be shopping for Test players. Now, you’ll find them standing proudly in the window of Harvey Nichols.
Then, Navidi has proved that he wasn’t the understudy for Sam Warburton, Ellis Jenkins or James Davies. Now? He is fast becoming Wales’ most complete backrow forward. He links in midfield with the same quality as he jackals and has dominated this year’s championship.
Anscombe has gone from a utility player to first choice outside half and one who’s goalkicking silenced the calls for Leigh Halfpenny’s rushed return from injury – his goalkicking against Ireland was immaculate.
Tomas Francis has become Wales’ leading tighthead and dealt with opposition loose-heads with a level of confidence and boldness that he should now try and convey to his hairdresser.
Parkes, who was once an also-ran in Super Rugby, has been rejuvenated since joining Scarlets in the Guinness PRO14 and has now become one of the most consistent players in Test rugby. Together with Josh Adams, Parkes has totally changed the way in which the Welsh back-line functions.
Sometimes you don’t need to select a squad of superstars to become an excellent test team. Sometimes they become superstars after they’re selected. Congratulations to all of those involved with the Welsh squad.
Confidence is the most Valuable Commodity
Modern elite rugby is dominated with stats and talk of systems and formations. Like it or not, that is the game. But there is one element of pro rugby that can’t be quantified or shown on a TV infographic, and that is confidence.
To see Ireland play in this year’s competition, compared to last, shows you how vulnerable a player’s mindset can be. Ireland were thumped by England, at home, on the opening weekend. It was a shock to the system, one that few could predict, and they didn’t recover.
No amount of protein shakes and PowerPoint presentations could transport Ireland back to the standard of rugby that they played in their victory against the All Blacks.
Ireland didn’t look a shadow of themselves, which might have still been promising – they were simply unrecognisable from what we have become used to. For a squad as deep and talented as they are, to not even challenge England or Wales was confusing. It’s not as though Ireland were blown away with injuries, because they weren’t. Yes, they missed Devin Toner, Dan Leavy and Rob Henshaw etc, but they didn’t have the same squad plague that ruined Scotland’s chances.
The nine and ten positions are the fulcrum slots in Test rugby, but even Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton weren’t immune to this broadside to the team’s confidence. When that star pairing don’t perform, neither do Ireland.
But, of course, this is of course no different to any Test team. When your two best players stutter, particularly in those positions that handle the ball more than any other, the rest of the team will feel the effect.
Ireland will be back though. A lot can change in six months, negatively, and positively, as we’ve just witnessed.
Italy Couldn’t Finish the Job
Italy didn’t win a game in the Guinness Six Nations. And the derisory comments about their performances, based on results, will continue. But if you lower your gaze beneath the championship table, you’ll see that Italy were hugely competitive during the tournament as a whole.
None more so than against France. That they lost that game will haunt all who played in it. Particularly Sergio Parisse, as this may have been his last chance to get a win over his paymasters. Italy dominated for huge swathes of the game. They had 65% of the possession and 71% of the territory. But when they got into the French ‘redzone’, their composure deserted them.
They looked as uncomfortable in the red, as a ‘Crip’. With stacks of pick and go opportunities, the Italian’s close contact work lost all of its potency. The pods, latching and clean-outs were not up to scratch and that illustrated the difference between a top six team and those beneath.
Even when Italy had the opportunity to win the game, with a simple overlap the ball was carried over the try line, a lack of killer instinct allowed for the ball to be knocked out of their hands by a chasing French defender.
Overall, Conor O’Shea will be silently pleased with their phase play, but he will almost certainly know what could have been if their finishing had been more ruthless.
Scotland’s Spirit is Why We Love Rugby
If you didn’t enjoy Scotland’s second-half performance against England, then rugby may not be for you. Even if you’re English, it was everything that you want from rugby.
Forty minutes of players doing what they want, not what they’re told. Finn Russell and Gregor Townsend had a bit of a chat at halftime, chat being a polite description of what probably transpired.
The result was that the very un-Scottish first-half approach of kicking for territory was abandoned and Finn Russell et al started playing what was in front of them, not what was in front of them on a whiteboard four hours ago. It was beautiful.
Russell’s passing was exquisite. Look closely at the short ball that put Sam Johnson through for the try of the Championship, and you’ll see an outside half beat an entire defensive line with his eyes. Spell binding play.
Add to that Darcy Graham’s footwork, which made Darcey Bussell look heavy footed, and you had a back-line that delivered one of the finest comebacks in all of rugby history. Quite what England thought they were playing at in that second 40 minutes is a genuine worry for Eddie Jones, but don’t let it detract from Scotland’s free-spirited approach.
Great to See a Referee Change his Mind
Refs aren’t supposed to change their mind. It’s regarded as a sign of weakness. But as Angus Gardener showed, changing your mind, having seen better evidence, is the way forward for Test refereeing. The most pivotal change involved Keith Earls taking the ball over his own line. It was initially given as a 22m restart, but then changed to a five-metre scrum for Wales.
Some have suggested that showing the replays on a big screen gives too much power to the TV director, but this isn’t the case. It’s not as though the TV Director is using Adobe After Effects to create something that hasn’t happened, he or she is merely showing what occurred. It’s a feature that every single supporter in the crowd, and at home, benefits from, so why shouldn’t the ref?
Not allowing referees to change their mind as a result of new information is ‘Brexit Refereeing’ and the game deserves better than that.
Alun Wyn Jones – My Guinness PRO14 Player of the Round and the Six Nations
AWJ was simply immense against Ireland but that’s standard for the Wales captain these days. His leadership is unparalleled and it’s the most simple actions that make an impact – just the sight of him eye-balling his team-mates and tapping his forehead ahead of a vital set-piece in the second half. Whether feisty or composed, everything AWJ does is deliberate and smart.
Well played Alun.
The Guinness PRO14 Final is one of the most entertaining games in the rugby calendar and takes place in Glasgow’s Celtic Park on May 25. Tickets start at just £25 for adults, £1 for kids. Visit www.pro14rugby.org/finaltickets