Wales v Australia: Five things we learnt
Wales lost a thirteenth consecutive time to the Wallabies but the way they played gave hope that a change of style was finally up and running
A loss, but in a contemporary style
Another defeat to the Wallabies. Which for some will be all that matters. And they may be right when you consider that Wales haven’t beaten Australia since 2008 – a sleight on an otherwise impressive Northern Hemisphere CV for Warren Gatland. However, this was a genuinely different Wales, a modern Wales. A Wales that was able to move the ball through the centres with a fluidity unseen since Gatland and Rob Howley took charge. Gone were the muscular, short carries in midfield from the Welsh 12, instead replaced by passing, and slick passing at that.
This new approach, whilst evident in the backs, was more impressive in the forwards with Jake Ball and Rob Evans in particular executing rapid handling more reminiscent of a Super Rugby hooker and lock. You just need to look at Tevita Kuridrani’s defensive stats to see why Wales need to persevere with a more unpredictable approach to midfield play. The Wallaby 13 missed five tackles from 12, which is almost unheard of from a centre in test rugby – particularly from a player of Kuridrani’s standing. It will require patience from Welsh supporters with regards to this new style in the build up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. It takes an age to untangle headphones that have only been in your pocket for just three minutes, Wales’ headphones have been in their pocket for at least three years longer than they should have.
Rob Evans – a kiwi in disguise
Welsh rugby may have selected the impressive Hadleigh Parkes in the current Welsh squad, but Rob Evans may be the most ‘Kiwi’ member of the squad. Evans executed 12 passes during his impressive stint – more than either Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, Jon Davies, Steff Evans or Owen Williams. It was a remarkable exemplar of modern prop play. Whilst many were looking to the unusually below par Taulupe Faletau to link the forwards and backs, it was Evans who on numerous occasions flicked passes through the midfield and allowed Wales to move the ball beyond the defensive ‘hinge’ and into the space in the wide channels.
But Evans isn’t a player who shines in the loose, whilst neglecting the tight. His scrummaging was solid and his tackle count was second only to Josh Navidi. Wales may have had issues with dodgy passports in the past, but Evans definitely requires a second look. He may profess to hail from Haverfordwest, but he plays like he was born in Wellington.
Owen Williams slams the door shut
Owen Williams not only shut down the 12 channel, but also slammed the door on the notion that Welsh inside centres need to be 12 feet tall and 120 stone to tackle effectively. At a few pounds under 15 stone and 6ft tall, Williams made 11 tackles and missed none. This against Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani who are not exactly known for their subtlety of play.
Whilst many were looking for Owen Williams to throw ‘miss-three’ passes, the more pressing concern was whether he could defend at Test level – the answer was yes. A resounding yes which contributed to a 98% defensive completion for Wales as a whole – the highest that I have ever seen in any test Welsh test match. Whether Williams can keep the 12 shirt long term remains to be seen, especially with Owen Watkin (the latest addition to my rugby man crush list) warming up backstage, but what is no longer in question is that Wales need more ‘ballers’ and less ‘maulers’ in the centre.
Play Liam Williams at fullback so that I can stop having to write this point
Wales’ change in style was desperately needed and, despite the loss, was effective. But one more change is required – Liam Williams must start at 15. Whilst Warren Gatland has been clear that he misled the rugby public a season ago by suggesting that they changed style, but didn’t, he did in reality make a big change during the tour to New Zealand – Williams being moved to 15. No player embodies the required change in style than the now Saracens man. Fullback is no longer a defensive orientated position.
You need only look at how New Zealand utilise Ben Smith/ Damien McKenzie/ Israel Dagg or the Wallabies’ use of Israel Folau/ Kurtley Beale to realise that tackling is no longer the primary role of a 15. Counter attacking possession is now the gold, frankincense and myrrh of test rugby. The opportunity to run at dog-legged and jumbled defences is no more numerous than from 15. It is perhaps a very Welsh trait to be so reluctant to switch fullbacks and wings. The All Blacks have regularly played switched Dagg and Smith. As with much of what New Zealand do, Wales need to follow.
Moments of brilliance can still win games
Kurtley Beale’s ‘rip and strip’ changed the game. Whilst it was bad news for Wales, it was good for rugby. For too long the game has relied on attrition and 25 phase sets to deliver tries. Seeing a player create a moment of solo magic was fantastic.
It even caught the camera operator off-guard, which is a sign of genuine on-field brilliance – there’s nothing quite like seeing the person behind the lens fall for a dummy or midfield scissors. It was no more than Beale deserved. Many felt that he should have started at 12, but even at 15 his impact on the game was enormous. It was a pleasure to watch him play. Hat-tip Mr Beale.