Wednesday 18 July 2018

Mistakes for Wales put Warren Gatland on the back foot

The halfway line was like an electric fence for Wales, who could not go near it, let alone over it

Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland

Steve James

THIS was an utter calamity for Wales. It was a match they could not contemplate losing. They had everyone fit, bar the odd squad player.

They had most of their key players - think of Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny and Gethin Jenkins - in good form and without excessive game time to weary their bodies. They were at home and they carried with them the huge psychological advantage of a resounding victory two years ago.

And yet they flopped. It was not even possible to blame the 'slow start' syndrome that afflicts them so often at the beginning of campaigns - think of a dispiriting defeat against Ireland two years ago in their opening match - because they were 10-0 up inside nine minutes.

So what went wrong? Firstly, I would point to all the pre-match nonsense.

Wales simply tried too hard with it all, from Warren Gatland's complaints about the roof through to the attempt to make England wait out on the field. As for the disco music and strobe lights, well . . .

When Wales won 30-3 in 2013 in the most electric of atmospheres, it all felt very natural - depriving England of a Grand Slam does that. On Friday night in Cardiff, it all felt too contrived.

It may have had an effect, it may not, but lessons may have been learnt. And that is often so important in international sport, because England had certainly learnt their on-field lessons from two years ago.

They picked a pack with powerful ball-carriers, they did not panic when they went behind and, perhaps most crucially, they did not try to play any rugby in their own half.

In short, they stopped Wales playing their favoured 'Warrenball'. You cannot play that game penned in your own half, and that was where Wales found themselves for large parts of the match, most especially in the second half. England kicked well and chased well.

Only once did we see the trademark tail-of-the-lineout ball and Rhys Webb feeding Jamie Roberts on the charge. And that was in the second half.

Roberts clattered into George Ford, as everyone had predicted beforehand, but Ford had Chris Robshaw as help and Roberts was brought down.

He was over the gain line, though, but then, when the ball was moved left, Jake Ball was turned over in contact by Dan Cole.

It was typical of Wales's inaccuracy. For example, in the first half when Mike Brown kicked long and was brought back - wrongly, as it happened - for a lineout in England's 22, Wales lost that lineout.

They did win the ball back when Ben Youngs's kick was charged down, but the moment was lost. Criminal.

However, probably the biggest howler was Webb's botched box kick at the very start of the second half. At 16-8 up, you just want to clear your lines and make England work for position. Webb's kick went straight up in the air and handed England a lineout just outside Wales's 22.

Wales never really escaped from there. Very soon, England went through 20 phases and Jonathan Joseph scored. Dan Biggar badly missed him and George North was duped by the feigned overhead pass to Brown. "Soft", Gatland called it, and it was.

From there, Wales were never really in the game. The halfway line became like an electric fence. Wales could not go near it, let alone over it.

Wales kicked a lot, marginally more than England, but they too were mindful of being caught in their own half, especially with the visitors' outstanding line speed in defence.

It was not that Wales kicked too much ball away, it was just that they never won enough possession in the right areas.

Their biggest concern must have been the performance of their tight five, who were totally outplayed and outmuscled by their English counterparts.

From there, their problems escalated. Webb and Biggar wobbled, while North and Alex Cuthbert were anonymous, with North taking a horrible second knock to the head that should have resulted in his departure.

'Warrenball', or any other '-ball', cannot operate without a platform. Wales discovered that to their cost on Friday.

It may easily be a match whose scars last as long as England's did from two years ago.


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