Another Six Nations Championship comes to an end. Wales have finished second, is this a reason for us to be optimistic? What positives and negatives can we take from a tournament where we won three out of five matches, and are we in a good position come a World Cup now eighteen months away? Read on to get my thoughts.
We finished behind Ireland but ahead of Scotland who after the Autumn Series many were saying were going to be a major threat in the Six Nations. We also finished ahead of an English side, how many were saying bar New Zealand was the best international side in the World, and would even push New Zealand really close. Even against Ireland and England, we had chances to win. England, the Gareth Anscombe try that was not given, and the Scott Williams attempted to slide into the corner that Sam Underhill curtailed due to a magnificent piece of try-saving tackling. The Ireland game where even at the end we were pushing for a try to get us back into the game, where we pushed too hard with the Anscombe interception and the Jacob Stockdale interception try. Not one game was we totally out of the game, and with certain decisions going our way, who knows? We did see some players who we were not sure were up to international standard, and now we have a crop of players who could play at this level if required. Also, the defence yet again was outstanding, Shaun Edwards is a fantastic defence coach, and in the French game in particular that defence got us the win. Defence wins games so they say, and with our defence, we are in most games against most opposition right to the end.
The consistency of performances and the selection policies undertaken and the style of play we want to play. Against England and Ireland, we only opened up and looked dangerous with ball in hand when chasing the game. We heard in the Autumn we wanted to play with a freedom and get the ball wide, but bar the Scotland game, and when a game was pretty much beyond us did we see that freedom to express ourselves? In terms of selections, we had a situation where Rhys Patchell had a great game against Scotland, taking the ball up to the line, spotting mismatches, and freeing players. In the following game against England, where we had not much front ball whilst Patchell was on the field the player struggled, the following week was dropped from the twenty-three matchday squad.
Dan Biggar, who missed the start of the tournament due to injury and does naturally play deeper, was brought back in for the Ireland game, and afterwards, Gatland admitted was a mistake to bring him back in, then misses the Italian game. We then play Anscombe from the start after strong cameo roles against England and Ireland. Anscombe does reasonably well against Italy as a running threat, taking it up to the line in attack, which we have been led to believe is what we want to do, only then for the final game of the tournament against France, Biggar to be brought back in?
Also, Aaron Shingler, outstanding at the start of the tournament at 6, gets brought out of the side to play against Italy to be replaced by Justin Tipuric, who up to that point, had only made a brief appearance off the replacements bench due to Shingler and Josh Navidi’s performances at flanker. Tipuric plays well against Italy in a position he does not normally play with James Davies playing at 7. When it comes to selection against France, a team who had demonstrated real physicality at the breakdown Gatland decides against Shingler a natural 6 and opts for Tipuric to play alongside Navidi, Tipuric a player who is a real threat in a loose quick game, but against a pack like France in ruck situations, not I would suggest your best option. What happens? We lose the breakdown battle and Tipuric is replaced by Shingler. A breakdown is not down to one player, but I feel this selection was completely wrong from the get-go.
Prior to the competition, many wanted to see Liam Williams start at 15 with this new way Wales were looking to play, and how Gatland selected Williams at fullback for the British and Irish Lions. Liam got injured and then in the Scotland game, Halfpenny, starting at 15, with front foot ball and a backline playing fast and expansive and scores two tries. Against England, Halfpenny was injured, and with Liam still needing game time, opted to select Anscombe at 15, Wales then lost the aerial battle and people realised what a loss Halfpenny was defensively.
Against Ireland we had Halfpenny, and then against Italy, Williams got his chance in the 15 shirt. He missed a one on one tackle against Minozzi which cost a try, tried to force a few passes which did not come off and then got sin-binned for a tackle after the whistle had already gone. Halfpenny got the shirt back against France and was very solid and made a great tackle on Grosso. On the wings, Josh Adams and Steff Evans got the initial starts, both played reasonably well, Adams was caught out on the cross kick from Owen Farrell for the Johnny May try, but showed that he could play at this level. Steff is dangerous in tight spaces at first or second receiver, and is a very good footballer, but does have defensive frailties. George North after injury got back into the side and showed a real intent and purpose in the attack, a hunger we have not seen for a while. Are there any others out of this group who still could come into the equation? Well, Owen Lane, Ashton Hewitt and in particular, Hallam Amos could still break in. The left wing slot in my view, in particular, is still wide open for the World Cup in the back three.
Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes, the Scarlet centres were the predominant choices for the 6 Nations, with Owen Watkin getting a start against Italy. Scott is a very good footballer and set up a few tries with his timing of pass and his vision to put boot to ball. Parkes is a centre you can rely on, makes his tackles, runs hard, has a decent kicking game, knows where the try line is, and his error count is minimal. There is no doubt though that Jonathan Davies was missed this tournament and when fit will slot straight in at 13. Watkin is a talent to keep an eye on and looks really promising for Wales for the future. The question for Wales is that if we decide to play Parkes at 12, then do we need to play another ballplayer elsewhere say at 15 with a Patchell or an Anscombe, especially if the starting 10 is Biggar who plays a more withdrawal role from the other two in attack, less in the faces of the opposition defence. Parkes is a really good player, but I don’t see him as a ball playing expansive 12, say as an Owen Williams can be, a player who seemed to be the player the Welsh coaches saw as the player to play this expansive new game, not then to get in any match day squads during the 6 Nations. As anyone who reads any of my previous articles, I would love to see Patchell tried at 12 or even Biggar given a go, both strong enough defensively and one further position out at second receiver who knows? There is a summer tour coming up so could be an opportunity to experiment.
As mentioned earlier in the negatives paragraph, my feelings around the 10 position are known. 18 months out from a World Cup, I am not sure the position is any more clear, and we have Rhys Priestland currently injured, who could come into the equation. It seems Gatland’s first choice right now is Biggar, but I do feel that Patchell was harshly treated this 6 Nations, and seems to be a player that Gatland has real reservations over him being the man to fill the 10 shirt or any starting shirt. Anscombe is the best running threat from 10, but can he control a game from the start and does he have the tactical kicking game to start at 10 in major internationals? Who Wales start at 10 and who does the back up on the bench come the World Cup will be fascinating.
At scrum-half, Gareth Davies got the starts, and the Scarlets player is a serious danger to the opposition as a strike runner and is a great supporter of the ball carrier in attack. He does, however, have to work on his delivery and his box kicking and is far from the finished article. Aled Davies was the other option this tournament and had a few cameo appearances. You do wonder how highly Gatland rates Aled Davies, as he called into question Gareth Davies fitness during the tournament but Aled hardly saw any game time. In my view, Rhys Webb is far and away the best 9 in Wales, and him reportedly going to Toulon next year will leave a massive void. If this happens, don’t rule out either Tomos or Lloyd Williams of the Cardiff Blues putting in a real challenge for the 9 shirt.
Rob Evans, Ken Owens and Samson Lee look the first choice options, but what was good about this tournament is that Wyn Jones and Elliott Dee look very capable at international level from their bench appearances. Nicky Smith also went well and with the evergreen Gethin Jenkins still showing form the loosehead prop position looks good. Hooker also with Owens, Dee, Scott Baldwin, Ryan Elias, Kristian Dacey and Matthew Rees all playing well, again, things look well covered. Tighthead you have less cover, Tomas Francis went well against Italy, but still, I am yet to be convinced he is top international level, so fingers crossed that Leon Brown, Dillon Lewis and Kieron Assiratti in the next 12 months or so progress. Wales this tournament had Rhodri Jones as tighthead cover against Italy, but Ospreys have decided to move him back to loosehead, which is absolutely the right decision.
Another area of strength. Cory Hill put in a really strong showing this tournament and in the Autumn Series. He carried well and was excellent in defence. Alun Wyn Jones was yet again outstanding especially against France and is a huge player for Wales as he has been for many years. You then have Bradley Davies, who has shown some real form with Ospreys in recent months and does give Wales some real physicality and grunt when he plays. Seb Davies, is a star in the making, a real athlete and if given the chance will take it with both hands. Jake Ball, unfortunately, was injured but is capable of pushing for a starting spot and if injuries are picked up then Luke Charteris could still potentially do a job for his country.
I have mentioned Shingler and Tipuric, and also Josh Navidi, who showed he was of international quality and was outstanding particularly against Scotland. Ross Moriarty started the opening games for Wales and was not at the peak of his fitness due to recent injuries, he did improve against England and no doubt will come again. Taulupe Faletau also was injured at the start of the tournament but was outstanding against France after a run of games, and by far is the best 8 in Wales. James Davies got a start finally against Italy and showed some nice touches and was strong defensively, one bit of ill-discipline apart and a dropped pass when a try was on, he did very well. Ellis Jenkins had a cameo role against Italy, and again, if given a chance, could make selectional decisions even more difficult for Gatland. The back row Wales are stacked with stars when you bear in mind players like Ollie Griffiths, Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton, Thomas Young and Ollie Cracknell were not in the squad due to injuries or not being called up. Wales have some really big calls to make to get the breakaway trio blend correct, but unlike some countries have plenty of options to choose from.
Wales do have some big decisions to make and work on combinations over the next 18 months, also how does Gatland see the best style of play for Wales to play to give us the optimum opportunity to win matches. Are we there yet? After the 6 Nations, I am unsure we are. There is some real quality in this group of players so fingers crossed they can progress.