March 13, 2012
Posted on 03/13/2012
Wales ‘never looked like losing’
‘We never looked like losing’ is a popular phrase in rugby. You’ll hear it uttered by victorious supporters throughout the rugby playing world. That is unless you’re a Welsh rugby supporter - those words aren’t part of your vocabulary. It’s not without justification; the Welsh team have had some pretty high profile losses over the last 20 years. Defeats to Fiji, Samoa and Italy have hardwired Welsh fans to harbour inbuilt doubts. That’s why Saturday’s victory over Italy was so important for Wales and their following.
It was the first time in 30 years that a Welsh team and their supporters have gone into a game knowing that they wouldn’t lose, and they didn’t.
But this notion wasn’t whipped up by notoriously emotional Welsh fans fuelled by misplaced confidence and Welsh beer - even rugby’s coldest and most calculating onlookers thought the same. Online bookmakers were offering Wales at 1-66 on, which is incredible when you consider that both teams are separated by just seven places in the IRB’s ranking.
The pre-match confidence also transferred onto the pitch. Whilst much will be made of Wales’s inability to rack up a five try victory and detractors will highlight a torrent of handling errors and yet another yellow card, Wales dominated virtually every aspect of the game.
The Welsh controlled 62% of the territory and 68% of the possession. Wales made seven clean breaks to Italy’s 0 and beat 15 defenders – Italy didn’t leave a single Welsh defender standing. Despite losing two lineouts, the Welsh lineout functioned at 86% and the Welsh scrum, after a shaky start, was more than a match for one of the Italian team’s core strengths. But the most telling stat is illustrated by what Wales didn’t have to do – tackle. Wales made just 48 tackles to the Italians 133. An 80 minute tackle count of 48 is incredibly low. And in the first half Wales made just 14 tackles, that’s less than one tackle per player. That means that at least one Welsh player didn’t make a tackle in the entire first half – Shaun Edwards will probably have him hunted down and publicly flogged.
Despite the win, Saturday’s performance against Italy will feature on few of the Welsh player’s highlight reels. Alex Cuthbert was the exception. He played very well, and now owns the 14 shirt. His team mates rather cruelly call him ‘Horse’ due to his long, angular face and his previous equine past, but after Saturday’s performance it may be a more accurate description of his ability to run. Cuthbert carried the ball 101m in total – to put it in perspective the entire Italian team carried the ball just 163m. It was a master class in simple, direct running, requiring the Italian defence to make countless energy sapping double-tackles. It is worth noting that Italy executed many double-tackles against Wales, but many were not born out of a defensive plan, they were a defensive necessity - Roberts, North, Jon Davies, Cuthbert and Mike Phillips often require two men to bring them to the ground.
Whilst Wales dominated virtually every aspect of the game, it was the Italians who controlled the breakdown. Justin Tipuric may possess better ball skills than Sam Warburton, but his lack of work on the ground left Wales at the mercy of the Italian flankers Favaro and Zanni. The Italians brought Wales’s ruck speed to a standstill at times, allowing them to re-organise an already well-organised defensive line. It is perhaps unfair to attempt a man to man comparison of Tipuric and Warburton. They are very different players and Warburton isn’t really a man, he’s half man, half mollusc - his ability to stick to a rugby ball is only comparable to David Pocock and Heinrich Brussouw. Wales desperately need him back for France.
Gatland will be concerned about the manner in which the Italians slowed the Welsh ball at the breakdown. He will also be concerned with Wales’ error count. Having made seven clean breaks and beaten 15 defenders Gatland would expect to yield more than two tries. Wales made 12 errors in 80 minutes, the most costly of which occurred in the redzone. Many rugby writers have already pointed out Wales’ high error count, but it is worth mentioning that when a team’s level of possession increases so may the error count – you need to have possession of the ball in order to knock it on.
It is perhaps a measure of how far Wales have come in the last 12 months that victories are no longer enough - the manner of the victory is now important too. Wales played well below par but still dominated the Italians. But they must improve significantly against France next week. Welsh fans have only just been given the opportunity to say “we never looked like losing”, it would be cruel to hear them say “we never looked like winning”.
Paul Williams - @thepaulwilliams