Reflections on the Rugby World Cup campaign
The blame game is a fruitless quest, because it has no merit in a team sport like rugby union. On the field of play, the team is either more, less or equal to the sum of its parts. The big question about individuals is: do they contribute to the sum in such a way as to enhance the prospects of the team, or not?
Unquestionably, James Hook is huge talent. No doubt he will, in some teams, contribute enormously to the overall sum, giving them a dash of the unknown in a game that is all too often certain. Regrettably, that team is not Wales when he is playing at standoff half.
In all fairness, his contribution to the game against France in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup was hampered by the loss of his captain, the main fetcher and the heartbeat of the team, together with injury to Adam Jones, the rock around which the Welsh scrum is built.
Similarly, against Australia, without the solid foundation of Adam Jones anchoring the scrum and the harrying, ball winning skills of Warburton, Hook was dealt a bad hand. Throughout the game, Wales’s scrums were being turned by Australia and Paul James, a skilled scrummaging loosehead, was exposed at tighthead, against a team not noted for its ability to turn out game winning front rows.
Nevertheless, Wales had chances to win both the games, and the wayward kicking of the erstwhile boy genius was mostly at fault. Losing to France with fourteen men would normally be something to be expected, but Wales left a fist full of points on the park. They only need one of those penalties to go over and it would Wales who walked out onto the park on Sunday, not France. That one of those was a relatively easy chance that Halfpenny, Jones or Priestland would have slotted over without a second though is particularly dissatisfying.
Likewise, the penalties we missed against Australia would have won us the game. Indeed when Wales went into the lead, it would have not be far from expectation for them to have kicked on and closed out the game. Instead, a missed conversion and several missed penalties left the Aussies in with a chance. A chance they took and Wales were never able to catch up.
Rugby is a game of clichés and there is none bigger than talk about momentum, but as much as it is cliché, it is also a basic truth. Once a team gains momentum it is very difficult to claw it back. At the point of Shane Williams scoring his try, Wales looked like they had gained momentum. Australia were looking distinctly taken aback, and it would have only taken another two scores to rob them of heart. The missed conversion must have put a glint back in their eye, a glint that turned into a sparkle when they succeeded in nailing two penalties in a matter of minutes to open up a gap. Which is when Wales lost momentum and started to flag.
To give the team credit, they fought back and came within a whisker of the Australians, but this game of ours is all about fine margins. The difference between an also-ran and a winner is a few penalty kicks. Despite coming fourth in the tournament overall, it is fair to say that Wales ended up in the also-rans enclosure come the final whistle.
All this said those who blame Hook for the defeats are wrong. He is not the right person for the role in which he was employed, but to lay the blame squarely at his door is no more adequate a response than those who blame the gods for Wales’s failings.
He lacks the composure of Jones or Priestland, but with the former looking distinctly suspect in terms of fitness, Hook was thrust into a role he has had little or no chance of gracing on a regular basis. Hopefully his time in France will allow him to familiarise himself more closely with the role. Until such a time, I would caution Mister Gatland not to utilise him in such a way.
I realise this condemns him to the role of utility player, but THAT IS WHAT HE’S GOOD AT. Bringing Hook off the bench and slotting him into 12 or 15 changes the game’s dynamic and gives the opposition something else to think about. Just like Gavin Henson, who at thirty in February is probably too old for the next World Cup. Such a shame…
Other solutions need to be created, so if we lose players, we aren’t left grasping at straws. Our options at tighthead prop are extremely limited and Paul James is no more than a stop-gap. As good as he is as a scrummager, he is not a tighthead. It’s a shame John Yapp has never shown the promise his frame surely offers, by being a pretty substandard scrummager, but nevertheless, Scott Andrews, his Cardiff team mate looks like he is capable of stepping up to the plate. He has the bulk, (6’ 2” and 18 stone 8lbs) and at 22 years of age, he has plenty of time to develop from the perspective of his own career, but from a Wales perspective, he needs to be ready sooner rather than later.
There’s no doubt, Andrews does not have the power at scrum time to compete against the very best in the way Adam Jones does, which is why Wales should be working with the young man now to build him into the long term replacement and current understudy of the imperious Jones. This is something I am sure has occurred to the Welsh management and they have no doubt put measures in place to bring him on.
What I’m arguing for is special treatment though. Clearly Andrews has been earmarked as a future Wales tighthead in the event of Adam not being available, or his inevitable retirement, Scott needs to be ready. We start building for the 2015 Rugby World Cup today and Scott Andrews needs to be taken to one side and given special treatment to build him into a scrummaging machine, so that in the next two years he is challenging Jones for his place.
Similarly, we need a decent backup to Captain Warburton. Again, there is a stand out candidate in the form of Justin Tuperic, the Ospreys flanker, who needs to be integrated into the squad and developed into a player who can slot into the role immediately. He is a fantastically talented player, who will in the next few years be challenging Warburton for his place, if he is handled correctly. So, once again, the WRU need to take him to one side and give him special treatment.
Every other top side does this. They have programs in place to develop special players for special circumstances. We should be identifying an entire shadow squad and giving them special treatment and we should be doing it now.
At standoff, Wales clearly missed the direction, cool head and game control of the young man from Llanelli. Priestland has been Stephen Jones’s pupil for a long time now, but he stepped out of his shadow and become his own man, to such an extent as I cannot see any time when Jones will be preferred to the younger man. He plays the game like Jones, only with greater pace and perhaps without the slide rule accuracy of Jones’s place kicking. Without him, against Australia, Roberts was being caught behind the gain line every time and without Roberts tying up the loose forwards and the midfield, Australia were able to take the game to Wales, with inevitable consequences.
Stephen Jones will probably not be around for the next World Cup, so he should only be used as a stop gap. He’s earned his wings a long time ago and as such should be put out to stud. Preferably with the best fillies Wales has to offer.
So, with all that in mind, here is my Wales squad and their shadows.
Wales for the six nations:
- Loosehead: Gethin Jenkins, Paul James, Ryan Bevington
- Hooker: Matthew Rees, Huw Bennett, Ken Owens
- Tight Head: Adam Jones, Scott Andrews
- Locks: Luke Charteris, Alun-Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies – and fingers crossed – Ian Evans
- Open side flanker: Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric
- Blind side flanker: Dan Lydiate, Ryan Jones
- Number 8: Toby Faletau and if he throws in his lot with us – Ben Morgan
- Scrum half: Mike Phillips, Lloyd Williams, Tavis Knoyle
- Standoff half: Rhys Priestland, Jason Tovey, Mathew Morgan, Dan Biggar
- Inside centre: Jamie Roberts, Scott Williams
- Outside centre: Jon Davies, and reluctantly Andrew Bishop
- Wings: George North, Morgan Stoddart, Tom James, Tom Prydie
- Full back: Leigh Halfpenny, Lee Byrne (fingers crossed for a return to form)
- Utility backs: James Hook, Gavin Henson
Obviously there will be a lot of trading places in that lot – particularly in the back three. But it highlights areas that we need to address pretty soon:
We’re thin at tighthead, both flankers, outside centre and full back, although I understand that Tom Prydie is being groomed for that role at the Ospreys. So, the regions and academies need to focus their attentions on these areas and everything will go swimmingly.
As for Wales, we flattered to deceive in one sense, losing to Australia, South Africa and France has left something of a sour taste on our campaign. Next time will be better if Gatland stays, but the lure of NZ might be too much, the only question is, can the Kiwis afford Wales’s asking price. Given they can’t, the future looks relatively bright for Wales, if we can fill the gaps I have highlighted.
Gatland is not the only coach who might depart either. Edwards is keeping his cards close to his chest and I have a gut feeling he really, really wants the England job. Obviously, that is dependent on the RFU getting rid of the incumbent, Martin Johnson. Johnson has not got the best out of his team, except in patches, but whether the RFU will see Edwards as a suitable replacement is another matter. I could see Jim Mallinder getting offered the job though.
Whatever happens, we can always find a new defence coach, but whether we want to is another matter. Gatland’s prescription seems to be working, despite the medicine tasting bloody awful for the last couple of years. With luck, as few injuries as possible and a development plan that will bring adequate replacements into the picture, the future for Wales looks bright.
I’m looking forward to it.