By Jack Vavasour
Warren Gatland took the opportunity of playing Tonga as a good time to experiment with different players as he tries to refine his pool of players prior to the World Cup next year. He believes there are currently 40 people in consideration for his squad.
Following on from an important win against Australia last week, Wales looked to continue their impressive form and record a big win over the Pacific Islanders. Liam Williams returned to the starting line-up to win his 50th cap for Wales, with Jonah Holmes wearing the number 15 shirt to make his debut.
Tonga will be coming to the Principality with a point to prove against a weakened Welsh side. They will be desperate to cause an upset and prove that they are a team who can challenge next year in Japan.
Wales were fast out of the blocks and crossed the line after a brilliant driving maul. The try was awarded as a penalty try, but the distance that Wales covered with their maul was phenomenal. Tonga started out looking like they shouldn’t even be on the same pitch as the Welsh, as Leva Fifita was sin-binned for his interference in the maul. It wasn’t long before Wales crossed again as the ball was stolen at the line out, and Wales used the ball quickly as Biggar ran off Wainwright to bundle over the line.
Tonga then won a penalty and got their first points, but still didn’t look like they could challenge the Welsh. Warren Gatland’s smile was shown across all the big screens in the stadium, clearly pleased with his player’s early performance. Wales were looking to play expansive, and risky, attacking rugby and after a beautiful line from Steff Evans almost sent Wainwright over, Tomos Williams used the ball quickly to send Liam Williams over in the corner. The finish from Williams, on what is his 50th cap, was outstanding and proved just why he is so highly rated.
Wales continued to play quick rugby hoping to break through a poorly organised defensive line. Debutant Jonah Holmes continued to look impressive as he dealt with high balls with ease, proving that he is a rock at the back. As Fifita returned from the sin bin, and the numbers for both sides were even, Tonga began to look dangerous. They almost scored their first try from close range, only for the TMO to disallow it for a knock-on on the floor.
An impressive display of running, and a poor line-out from Tonga, put Wales back into a dangerous position inside Tonga’s 22. Wales were given a penalty for a dangerous tackle and Biggar took the points with ease.
After failing to nail the basics, especially at the line-out, Tonga turned to their giant forwards and used them as battering rams to break through the Welsh defence. This plan proved a success as Fifita bruised his way over for Tonga’s first try of the game. Tonga’s success was based off the back of some solid scrummaging and impressive ball carrying from their forwards. Sadly, their backs wouldn’t click quite in the same way throughout the game.
Once again, Tonga used their forwards to good effect as Mafi rolled over from a driving maul to push Tonga closer to Wales. As the half ended, the momentum was definitely in Tonga’s favour having destroyed the Welsh forwards in the latter part of the first half.
The half ended 24-17 and Warren Gatland was no longer smiling, as his side looked well below par. Tonga had ended the half impressively and Wales were undoubtedly on the back foot.
As the second half kicked off the Tongan’s continued their momentum and were on the attack straight away. The pressure appeared too much for Wales, as Sione Vailanu read the play intelligently and intercepted T. Williams’ pass to Biggar and sprinted half the length of the pitch. After the conversion, the scores were level. Admittedly, this can be seen as fortunate for Tonga, however, as an underdog you have to take all the chances you can. Sadly, this would be the final influence that Tonga had on the game as they slowly drifted into exhaustion and Wales ran free.
Less than 3 minutes after Tonga’s try, Jake Ball ran a devastating line which cut the Tongan defence in two. Tonga’s recovery defence was slow and Biggar made a simple chip, which was easily collected by Steff Evans who only had to drop down and score the try. Wales then threatened the line for the next ten minutes, before eventually getting more points when Tonga were caught offside at the breakdown, and Dan Biggar kicked the penalty.
Wales continued to regroup well as T.Williams sniped around the ruck well to go over, for what would turn out to be his last play of the game. Biggar, once again, kicked the points to further Wales’ lead as they began to dominate the game once again.
Tonga began to look disorganised again, as they attempted to attack, but were turned over due to lack of support for their runners. Rhys Patchell was brought on by Wales to re-energise their backline. Patchell appeared in heaven as he found gaps within the tiring Tongan defence. Tyler Morgan would cross, even though Wales should have scored a phase earlier, but this would be one of their final wasteful mistakes.
Just minutes later, Ryan Elias picked up the ball which had been spilled by Vungakoto Lilo in the air, Cory Hill was nearby to gallop the final thirty metres to score a try. Wales appeared to be thriving from the broken and open play that was happening as Tonga looked to have given up.
Wales would utilise Tonga’s sloppiness to score what might become the try of the Autumn Internationals. Liam Williams and Aled Davies were at the centre of a passage of play that included offload after offload, eventually resulting in Davies going over for the score. Tonga were hardly putting up any resistance at this stage and Wales were walking in tries for fun as they were replenished by their substitutes.
Once again, Patchell produced some brilliance and found a gap in the Tongan defence, he looked isolated but skipped past the fullback in order to run another try in under the posts. Tonga were again in possession after this try, but when they had the ball there was no energy and no threat. Wales hardly had to defend before the ball was spilled forward by the Tongans. Liam Williams finally found a gap to go over for his second and Wales’ final try of the game. The final score ending as a massive 74-24 win to Wales.
Despite the score being so convincing, Wales’ performance was anything but. The majority of their points were scored in the final twenty minutes of the game when the Tongan’s looked exhausted and had lost all hope of winning the game. Warren Gatland can be happy with the result and the amount of points his side scored, however, against Tier 1 nations you cannot afford to have a period of bad form like they did during the final twenty minutes of the first half. Furthermore, the Tongan’s destroyed them up front, and against a better side this would have proven far more costly. Luckily, today, Wales could utilise the open spaces and broken play, however, entering into a World Cup year, Gatland will know that this needs to change if you want to make it through the knock-out stages.
The focus of this victory should be where Wales can improve, this was a game that was a must win and unfortunately, the players that Gatland brought in didn’t perform well enough to warrant places in the regular XV. That said, Jake Ball made a very good showing of himself, as did Seb Davies, however, Davies performed towards the latter stages of the game and was more in open play than anywhere else. In the backs, both wingers showed their class, especially Liam Williams, who showed why Gatland trusted him last year when the Lions toured. Jonah Holmes had an impressive debut, especially under the high ball and could certainly have put his name in contention for a ticket on the plane to Japan next year.
Gatland, at 10, has a very difficult decision to make as both Patchell and Biggar had wonderful games. This game highlighted the differences in the two fly-halves styles. Patchell created wonderful attacks, whereas Biggar was far more pragmatic and his try, where he forced his way over in forward like fashion, showed his power. Gatland must decide if he wants to play a safe game or a dangerous game. Biggar offers a far safer game than Patchell, however, he can definitely be a game changer.
Today offered a satisfying win for Welsh fans and all rugby supporters, however, Gatland will definitely want more consistent performances for the whole 80 minutes. This will be important when facing Tier 1 nations.