How on earth did Wales win this game?
For about 65 minutes their scrum was creaking (as predicted in yesterday’s article Garces targetted Gethin Jenkins), the lineout was a weakness, they struggled to stop England’s ball carriers getting over the gain line and the injury list grew longer as the game wore on. What they did have in their favour though was Dan Biggar and character.
It was at the 2011 World Cup where Rhys Priestland cemented his place as first choice Welsh outside half, a position he retained for the next couple of serious. Dan Biggar eventually usurped Priestland and since then has developed in to one of the best 10s in World Rugby.
In yesterday’s game Biggar seemed to be everywhere; taking high catches and launching attacks, drilling the ball deep in to Engalnd’s half to relieve pressure and driving and cajoling his team mates to greater heights.
It was Biggar’s pass that allowed the Welsh attack to slip around Brad Barritt that led to the equalising try. It was Biggar’s immaculate goal kicking that kept Wales in touch with England and eventually took them in to a lead. It was Biggar’s force of character that seemed to push Wales on when the game was seemingly evading their grasp.
On the field of play Biggar is not afraid to speak to referees to get his views across. This may not go down well with some viewers but until the referee tells him to stop it gives the team an advantage. In yesterday’s game there were several occasions where Biggar had a discussion with Garces which may have influenced him in certain decisions.
Leigh Halfpenny is arguably the greatest goalkicker in the world but Dan Biggar has stepped in and shown he is also up there with the very best. His final kick to win the game had an air of inevitability about it, even though the penalty was some distance out from the posts.
Did Warren Gatland choose some of his first choice players for a bench spot knowing they would make a difference when they came on towards the back end of the game? Even if it wasn’t a deliberate tactic, the inclusion of Lee, Owens, Tipuric and Charteris took Wales’ forward performances up a notch or two which brought them back in to the game.
It was now Wales’ turn to get some forward momentum as England struggled to stop the drives of Owen’s and Faletau; it was now the Welsh forwards who were brushing through tackles.
Charteris in particular had an immense influence on the game. It was his intervention in the far corner that brought the England maul to an abrupt conclusion as England gambled for the win. He also provides a good lineout option which allowed Wales to ease the pressure on their line in those final minutes.
It is the ability to do simple things well when under pressure that has been the downfall of Wales in a number of games, mostly against their Australian nemisis. Luke Charteris provided this solidity by taking the lineout and making some important carries to take Wales over the gain line which they struggled with in the first two thirds of the game.
Having forward strength on the bench allowed Wales to step up a gear when it was most needed.
Character is difficult to define and even harder to coach but when you see it, it is easy to recognise. As the game moved in to the final stanza, with Wales down on the scoreboard injuries to Liam Williams and Hallam Amos seemed to herald the death knell of the Welsh hopes.
A makeshift back line was put together with a third choice scrum half put on the wing and a wing shifted to the centre. But instead of capitulating Wales moved the ball with confidence and scored their only try of the game through the vision of Lloyd Williams and the pace of Gareth Davies.
Not happy to accept the draw, the tireless work of Gethin Jenkins at the breakdown won Wales a penalty to take the lead. Most Welsh supporters’ thoughts would have flashed back to the myriad games lost to Australia in the last minutes of their encounters but this time it was different.
Yes, Wales gave away a questionable penalty which could have lead to a draw but it was a solid lineout defence coupled with intelligent play at the scrum that saw Wales over the line. Perhaps they did learn something from all those defeats to Australia.
We knew this pool could have ended with the big three teams all beating each other and this may still happen. England have to now beat the improving Australians which is not outside their capabilities as long as they can put the Welsh defeat to one side mentally.
For Wales the initial target is to find enough fit backs to fill the team against Fiji. This isn’t going to be easy. Assuming Scott Williams, Amos and Liam Williams are out the options are pretty thin. Gatland may not be able to rest some of his key backs for the Fiji game.
This World Cup has just got a bit more interesting.
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