Rugby Review: Wales Fire Back to Shock England in Cardiff
The rugby internationals summer series continued over the course of the weekend with lovers of the sport treated to no less than five games of note on Saturday. Things are hotting up as we approach the 2019 Rugby World Cup which takes place in Japan this autumn.
Many coaches of the leading names in the frame have already confirmed their World Cup squads, meaning the fixtures being played over the next few weekends gives them the chance to test out fringe players, tactics and even kickers. It also gives players the chance to impress and, having already won a seat on the plane to Japan, they now want to shine during the warm-up games to cement their place in the starting 15.
That scramble for attention is great news for sports fans as it means these international tests are worth much more than usual. Not only do we get the chance to see some of the best teams and players in the sport strut their stuff, but we also see an extra edge to their play. There was no lack of exciting fixtures to look forward to on Saturday as Wales hosted England in Cardiff in the main attraction, backed up by New Zealand v Australia, South Africa v Argentina, Italy v Russia and France v Scotland.
The best of those matches went in Cardiff and France and that’s where we focus our attention, but it is worth giving a mention to the other results on the day, before getting into the thick of our weekend review. The All Blacks hammered Australia 36-0 in a real show of strength, South Africa held off Argentina, but more was expected than the 24-18 scoreline. Italy doesn’t enjoy too many thumping wins but that’s exactly what they enjoyed when battering Russia 85-15.
Wales Out for Revenge
England went into Saturday’s match away to Wales on the back of a morale-boosting win over the same opponent less than seven days before. The sides met at Twickenham on Sunday 11 August and it was the home side that came out on top, courtesy of a 33-19 score. There wasn’t too much between the teams on the day and the final tally seemed to flatter the victors somewhat. Both grabbed three tries, but it was England’s kicking that made all the difference, scoring conversations and penalties to edge themselves in front.
It’s not always pretty but a reliable kicker is often the difference between winning and losing at the top level of international rugby and England are well covered in that position. When things get tactical, they can hold their own against the best of them and fans will be hoping we see that in Japan when the World Cup gets serious. Would that same accuracy see them repeat the feat when the rivals locked horns again in the return on Saturday? The answer was no, not even close.
Wales invited England to Cardiff for the return leg and they went into Saturday’s showpiece event knowing they’d become the number one ranked side in the world with a victory. That inspired the players, coaching staff and crowd to a big performance and the stands at the Principality Stadium were packed to the rafters to witness the opening whistle of this match. It was a day in the history of Welsh rugby and they certainly lived up to the occasion.
World Number One
Rugby is taken very seriously in Wales and the locals haven’t been short on special occasions over the years, but this one was a bit different. The chance to head to the World Cup as the number one ranked side on the planet eclipsed them all and it seemed only fitting they had to beat an old rival in England to do it. Their opponents arrived determined to upset the party and deliver a message to the watching world ahead of this autumn’s spectacle, but they failed to lay a glove on an opponent who came out of the corner swinging. Wales were in the mood to give someone a beating and, unfortunately for England supporters, they stood in the way. There was always going to be one winner on Saturday afternoon.
The Welsh ran riot to snatch a stunning 13-6 victory and complete the mission. At the full-time whistle, Warren Gartland’s side sat in the number one position, looking down on the rest, and it really couldn’t have come at a better time. The victors exploded out of the traps, seemingly rising to the occasion when the crowd set a special atmosphere to greet them coming out of the tunnel. The battered their way to a stunning 10-0 first-half lead and it looked like Wales would not only take the number one spot but would also maul England in the process. It wasn’t to be as their opponents tightened up during the team talk, cut out the individual errors, blocked out the noise of the Wales fans and edged their way back into the contest.
The second 40 was a tense affair as England hunted down a score a 10 but they couldn’t quite get themselves back into the match. It was a case of close, but no cigar. Having said that, a draw would’ve come as no surprise to those who followed the second half of this match and England go away with positives from the day. They didn’t get the result they had hoped for, but they did get valuable minutes under their belt against top-quality opposition and did give a good account of themselves. Followers of English rugby should take this match for what it is, a World Cup warm-up, allowing their opponents to have their day in the sun.
A Game of Two Halves
There was only one try scored on the day and it came from Welshman George North, helping inspire his teammates to victory. That was backed up by a crucial conversation from Biggar as well as penalties from Biggar and Halfpenny. It was interesting to see Wales had done to England what was done to them across the border a few days before. A close match was won by kicking and shrewd tactics. Wales got the win they needed but they also learned a few lessons and supporters will be delighted to see the side improving in such a short space of time.
As the old adage goes, it was a game of two halves and Team Wales will take something different from each of the two 40-minute spells. In the opener, the coaching staff were delighted to see the free-flowing rugby of Wales, backed by support in full voice. This really was them at their best and, if they play like that in Japan, they will certainly take all the beating. England came back into it in the second half and began to eat away at the 10 points lead. It looked like they must just do it too, but after seeing praise heaped on the attacking side of their game, it was up to the backs to showcase their defensive talents and that’s just what they did. Wales held firm and got the result they wanted.
France Make Light Work of Sorry Scots
Over in France later that evening and Scotland came out of their match with more questions than answers. It’s not quite known exactly what we should expect from a Scotland side who have blown hot and cold in recent times. There’s no doubting the talent they have in the squad and when in the right frame of mind, they’d give anyone in world rugby a run for their money, but that wasn’t the case on Saturday. Scotland tested themselves against one of the major teams on the planet and came up short, the match showing just how far off the pace they are. If Saturday evening’s game was anything to go on, it’s going to be a tough World Cup for Scotland and her supporters.
The scoreboard on Saturday evening read France 32-3 Scotland and that was a fair result of how the match went. It was a mauling for the Scots and they were sent back to Murrayfield to lick their wounds and go over what exactly went wrong. Could they have done anything different to, perhaps, narrow the gap, or was the scoreline a reflection of just how far away from the front runners they are at the moment? Medard scored two tries and he was backed up by Raka, Alldritt and Dunpont. Lopez sailed over two conversations and the same man also notched a penalty. Scotland offered nothing in response other than a penalty that was converted by Hastings. The scores read 20-3 at half time, France turning the screw in the second 40 while Scotland sunk without a trace.
The performance and final score attracted a barrage of criticism, from players, fans and even ex-Scotland internationals. Gregor Townsend spoke to the press at the conclusion of the match and said the team need a big improvement on the back of that horror show. The head coach admitted most of his current squad of 40 will be off to Japan, so he doesn’t have the luxury of dropping players who didn’t perform. He must man manage his side and get the best out of those available to him and that’s where Townsend will have to show his knowledge and prove his worth. He will live or die on the results at this World Cup and his very future in the job relies on a strong show.
The Scotland team are good enough to go to Japan and put up a fight, but fans believe it’s about time they started showing just what they are capable of. Press releases and PR hype would have us believe this squad are on the verge of breaking through and improving on the efforts at the last World Cup, but we saw no proof of that on Saturday. If Townsend and go are to do anything of note in autumn they will have to improve in every area of the park, starting with defence. There were too many unforced errors made on Saturday and, at times, it looked like France didn’t even have to work for their prizes. Townsend’s job now must be to make his team are difficult as possible to beat and then work from there. Yes, they have flair but they’ll only get the chance to show it if they can cut out mistakes in defence.