Our latest RWU Contributor looks exclusively at Packs And Backs, thus his PAB nickname. Today, PAB provides some excellent, In-Depth Six Nations Analysis re Wales vs France.
CARDIFF, WALES: Outfoxed by Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, the reigning Six Nations champions were given plenty of food for thought from their lethargic performance in Dublin. The mind wanders back to the same fixture in 2013 – Ireland beat Wales in the Millenium Stadium on the opening weekend. Wales went on to win the tournament.
In 2013, the Welsh had lots to take from a strong second half of attacking rugby. The last 40 minutes in Dublin this year weren’t pretty to Welsh eyes. If you’re trying to take hope for this year’s tournament, it won’t be from that match. What can be taken from the opening fixture against Italy? Not much. They say hindsight is 20/20 but one could remark that Wales’ downfall against Ireland was to be predicted after an uncomfortably close game against the Italians.
The bottom line is, Wales have seriously underperformed so far in 2014, and have some real making up to do and France is no easy draw. The stand-out change to Warren Gatland’s side is the omission of scrum-half Mike Phillips. He has long been one of the untouchables of the side, a player who Gatland always thought highly of. Selections aren’t made on nostalgia, though. On form alone this is the right call. He was average at best against Italy and showed passion against Ireland when the game was dead and buried, but it was surprising he wasn’t sin-binned sooner than the final minute. Gatland’s reasoning was clear; “We weren’t happy with Mike’s performance… …this is an opportunity for him to have a think about that.” Gatland wasn’t impressed, and Phillips knows where he stands for the time being.
However, much it sounds like Gatland is punishing Phillips, he realises that this will be good for him. Phillips hasn’t seriously been under pressure for the scrum half place with the national side for years. He’s underperforming this last while, while Rhys Webb is playing some very good regional rugby. Two players competing for a place creates a healthy, competitive environment in any position, and that’s what Gatland has created. Webb deserves his spot every bit as much as Phillips, and regardless of whether he retains his place, this is the right decision for both players in the long run. What about Rhys Priestland? The current Welsh fly half has come under criticism over the past while for, like his half-back partner, being out of form. Yet, Gatland has stubbornly stuck with him.
With top quality 10s waiting to take Priestland’s place, this decision seems unusual. Dan Biggar was the man in possession of the jersey before the Six Nations (you may catch a glimpse of him on the bench tonight). Even if Gatland has a good reason for showing a lack of interest in Biggar, James Hook is on the bench as well. Gatland’s reasoning for why Hook hasn’t been given the 13 jersey is that he hasn’t played in the centre for Perpignan all season, so it wouldn’t be fair to throw him in up against French giants Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud. But Hook has appeared at 10 twice for Perpignan and one would feel that he’d be up for the challenge.
The Formation Of The Outside Backs
George North’s move into 13 was inevitable after Scott Williams’ injury. While he might be more comfortable on the wing, a struggling pack will not provide ample opportunity for the ball to get out to North in his natural position. When you have a player on your team like North, you need him taking on ball. He should be seeing a lot of ball this weekend, and don’t be surprised to see him do a lot of damage.
North will also add physicality in defence against the aforementioned French giants of Fofana and Bastareaud. Bastareaud is big and physical and will be a formidable opponent for North. Fofana is also a physically strong player with a bit of flare. When he gets going, it’s good – and it’s dangerous. Arguably the only element of traditional French champagne rugby left in the team under Saint-André, if Wales want to stop France’s attack, they’ll have to stop Wesley Fofana first.
The question hanging over North’s move to inside centre is whether he and Jaime Roberts will gel as a centre partnership. It’s absolutely crucial that there’s good communication and trust between the two centres. With a change of personnel both at 9 and 13 this Friday, the new partnerships need to form quickly. If they do, we’re looking at a refreshed Welsh backline that could be very destructive. If the new partnerships, both in midfield and halfback positions, don’t gel and learn to work well together very quickly, what we have in this Welsh team is a potential recipe for disaster.
The Front Five
The front five forwards include only one replacement between them –Luke Charteris’ return to the second row after a hamstring injury. The former Dragons captain currently playing for Perpignan takes the 4 jersey, bringing with him size and strength which will be necessary for the Welsh pack overcome the French. The front row remains unchanged from the clash against Ireland. At loosehead, Gethin Jenkins was not at the races in Dublin. He didn’t appear to be absolutely match fit, but was given game time for the Cardiff Blues last weekend and that could be exactly what’s needed to get his fitness levels back up to international standard. As for the tighthead prop, a player who could well have been in contention for a spot in anybody’s World XV last year has failed to impress so far this season. The new scrum laws have brought many problems to the surface for some of the world’s greatest scrummagers, and unfortunately, Adam Jones is one of them.
The Same Old Back Row
Dan Lydiate has developed a habit of giving away way too many penalties at rucks. Lydiate’s bad form of late has to be down to his move the Racing Metro and his lack of game time there – he has had only 6 league starts this year. Being asked to carry more has also taken away from his effectiveness and discipline where Wales need him most. So far in this tournament, just 2 games in, he has conceded 6 penalties. This is a startling statistic and sums up a problem which needs to be sorted out. Although there is uproar in certain circles that Gatland hasn’t dropped his influential captain (Sam Warburton, 7) for the dynamic Justin Tipuric, one can agree with this decision. Warburton’s leadership qualities on and off the field have to be taken into account – and he’s a bloody good player too. He showed in the second Lions test this summer that he is by far the best openside flanker in the world on his day.
The Verdict On The Welsh
This really is do or die for a squad of talented players. In the pack, players have been given the chance to redeem themselves. If they can come back fighting, this Welsh pack won’t stand down to anything the French throw at them. Key to the backline functioning will be the half back and centre partnerships gelling quickly. If the players can learn to communicate together, this reformed Welsh backline could go places.
So, it comes down to the fire in the bellies of the forwards and the communication and trust between the backs? Not quite that simple, but that will play a huge part in tonight’s game, and could be the big difference between sealing your place as a force of European rugby for the third year, and being subject to a brutal defeat at the hands of the French.
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