by Sion Ford
It’s been just over a week since the last of Wales’ summer tour matches ended, time enough to reflect more thoughtfully on the relative successes of this campaign as well as consider where Welsh rugby is positioned ahead of the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Given the lacklustre beginning in Washington, there has been a turn-around in how this tour will be remembered with Gatland recording his first test series win with the Wales national team.
Two impressive performances – albeit against a thoroughly underwhelming Argentina side – in the Southern Hemisphere which displayed a resilience in defence, a depth which has been missing for some time, and a clinical ability to score when the opportunities presented themselves have definitely given a more positive spin on things.
The watershed in Washington
Looking back to that first outing, the match that should never have been, against an experimental South Africa, there were very few positives to take away ahead of an away test series in Argentina. Admittedly there were some personal performances which deserved a mention – Ellis Jenkins, Dillon Lewis, and Hadleigh Parkes were a positive influence on a game which was destined to only be remembered for the controversy it caused in its conception.
For the likes of the other unfamiliar faces in the squad there was a feeling of a missed opportunity, passing them by. It was reminiscent of the Japan game in Cardiff in 2016. Small bursts of positivity outshadowed by the error count, the subsequent loss of momentum, a sticky and unsatisfying win. A shaky start, something that seemed to be reflected in Gatland’s barbed defense of the fixture before the game had even begun.
This early victory might have alluded to something else that Gatland has passed comment on; the beginnings of testing the character of his resource pool ahead of the Rugby World Cup. Yes, the South Africa game was a poor reflection on the game, but a young XV of Welsh players ground out a win against seasoned Super Rugby participants in terrible conditions. Gatland has always focused on performance as the true measure of his team, and while the result wasn’t pretty the experience gained – how to win ugly, how to control a game in adverse conditions – will no doubt have pleased him.
Unexpected comfort in Argentina
And so things moved onto the Argentina game in San Juan, where much noise was being made about the recent exploits of the Argentinian national team in club form. The Jaguares, who were undefeated in six matches and beating their Super Rugby colleagues home and away, were favoured to win this encounter with little hope given to the Welsh team.
With a small raft of changes being made, it was a much improved and assured performance from Wales to that of the weekend before. The defensive effort from a young Welsh team against experienced Southern Hemisphere opposition was imperious, as was the overall performance from the Welsh pack. James Davies was simply sensational; Seb Davies turned in an efficient performance; Adam Beard showed glimpses of what he will be capable of in time; Elliot Dee looks to be a big player for the Welsh front-row.
Equally as pleasing to see was the bigger-name players also stepping up – North was effective in his carrying, Parkes put in another noteworthy performance, Moriarty offered the brutal ball-carrying that Wales have sometimes been lacking, and Josh Adams again showed his capabilities off the ball in a test match that called for that side of the game.
Backing up success
Success on the rugby pitch only matters if the last performance is backed up by the next, and in some ways the series-deciding win in Santa Fe the following week was more impressive. It was a more controlling performance, accompanied with genuinely exciting attack play and handling, but also showed a maturity to monopolise opportunities to build and retain momentum.
Cory Hill was an exemplary leader in this contest, taking the right decisions at the right time to starve Argentina of the opportunity to generate any self-belief or purpose to their play.
One of the most reassuring facets of this Wales tour, there were again a lot of performances, across the team, in key positions which suggest Wales are now in possession of more strength-in-depth than they have been for a while.
The only criticism to be made was that it didn’t feel as though the experiment of playing Ellis Jenkins at blindside to accommodate two opensides paid off – his game went well, but it didn’t enable Jenkins to play to his full potential. To have that selection issue, though, is nothing to be worried about.
Particularly reassuring to see was the performance of Aled Davies at scrum-half, he was both confident and commanding, and the transition from Tomos Williams to Gareth Davies to Aled Davies across the tour has been seamless. Once more, that cliched importance of the depth in your squad cannot be understated for this Welsh team.
What have we learnt?
So what has been learnt as a result of this summer expedition? Firstly, that there are without question sterner tests to come. As successful a tour as this has been, the quality of intensity in their opposition was non-existent compared with that of the other Southern Hemisphere teams over the past few weekends. The breakdown contest in the Australia-Ireland and South Africa-England tests has been shuddering, and there’s no escaping the fact that Argentina did not compete at that level.
Secondly, as good and as solid Wales’ defensive effort was in Argentina, the fact is that you can only be pleased with that kind of performance up to a point. To continuously be on the backfoot, to constantly be making tackles and getting back into the defensive line will lead to better teams profiting from that kind of advantage. That’s not to take anything away from Wales’ defence, but if we are being honest about what you need to thrive in a World Cup then there’s no hiding from the fact that you cannot just defend.
Wales have what it takes to win in World Cup fashion. There was a precise, composed feeling to the manner of the second test win. At no point have Wales’ wins been the flashy try scoring kind that New Zealand and South Africa have offered up, but where and when the time has called for accuracy and skill the Welsh team delivered.
A crucial 12 months to come
On reflection, the next 12 months will be just as crucial to Wales’ World Cup preparation as this tour has been, and no doubt Gatland will want to see the intensity that this team will be subjected to go up, but this is as good a start as could have been hoped for. Three wins from three, successful victories against the opposition playing in front of them, with a useful amount of gametime and experience divided among a wider squad.
Can Wales win the World Cup based on what’s taken place over the past 3-4 weeks? Probably not, but are they on the right track to build something special come Japan? Without a doubt.
Momentum, such a cliched term in rugby commentary, is going to prove key to the continued development of this Wales team, and while a Webb Ellis trophy might be beyond Gatland at his final run in charge of Wales, the legacy he will leave – alongside his already immensely successful time in charge – will be a seasoned and hungry team for the next coach to take forward.