Although we've all been hit hard over the last year for many different reasons, I think we can all agree that one of the saddest aspects of modern living is being unable to watch England take on Wales live at the Principality. I'd struggle to tell you of people within my circle who haven't experienced what it's like to be there on match day; this year it felt like the perfect time to have huge crowds cheer and banter as there is so much on the line. A Wales team grinding out results and upsetting the bookies against an England team on a clear downward spiral who managed to take a little positivity out of their thumping of a torrid Italy side. What more is there to talk about! Oh yeah... The actual game itself...
Right, we better get this one out of the way early as I'm sure you would be scrolling to find our take anyway! What was the refereeing like on Saturday? Well, yeah, it wasn't great was it, is that what you wanted to hear? Ah okay then, I'll throw a dog a bone... The opening Wales try I think we can all universally agree was a little bit naughty. It's very rare that you have three/four water carriers on a pitch and a direct order for your captain to warn your side about penalty infringements not matter for a cross field ball. I'm split 50/50 on this one. Biggar clearly played the referee's game well and after ten minutes of stop-start rugby, it felt like Gaüzère himself was getting a little agitated; Biggar manipulated that need to resume the game quickly and Wales scored out of it. England weren't bunched up per say, they still actually had cover on the opposite wing, so that excuse I'm not necessarily buying... HOWEVER, the ref should have held off a little because it did come across as if he was in on it... Not in a tipping off, spy like way, but rather that he saw Biggar wanted to surprise England and he let him do it regardless of the situation... To me, no try. The second try, well unfortunately that was a try. It's one of those kind of rubbish tries that your friend scores and won't stop banging on about for weeks on end; you know the one they go to kick and then the ball ricochet's off of a big ol' props noggin back into their hands and they run it in uncontested? I think 95% of ref's don't give that try simply down to the jamminess of it, but fair play to Gaüzère and co, they got it spot on to the letter of the law. What about everything else? Well that I hated. In a game that needs a cash injection urgently due to no game-time gate, are you expecting to win over any new fans with a penalty count of over 20? I know there is give and take there, Itoje for one kept repeating error on error, but maybe as a ref you should try to think of the wider game; sitting alongside my fiancé who is still learning the laws, she had completely lost interest after the 10th penalty before the 20 minute mark... IT WAS BORINGGGG... Rugby should never be boring, and if the rules are being pushed so hard that the game becomes boring, then the rules were never that clever to begin with. Most of the offsides were marginal at best, some of the breakdown penalties for not rolling away were baffling (especially the one on Faletau who was given less than two seconds to roll after a tackle) and the lineout jumpers being pinged constantly had me genuinely frustrated. During a weekend that saw multiple, hideous refereeing decisions and completely broken matches both at club level and international, World Rugby must look at how we can improve this because anyone under the age of 15 will not sit through interrupted snore fests induced by one person's whistle.
Form is Important, Who'd Have Guessed it?
Adam Beard had played more minutes of Rugby this season than the entire England pack combined... Let that sink in for a moment. Every father and his dog will lecture you from the day you first catch a Rugby ball that you can spend as much time in a gym or on the training ground as you want, but it's nothing compared to match readiness, match fitness and match sharpness. England's reactions were genuinely shocking. Whether it was Vunipola, lounging around in the backfield as the deepest man, Daly dropping pass after pass, Itoje forgetting where the offside line was constantly or Youngs being simply too slow to get the ball off of the deck, the sides looked world's apart in focus. Every ball that hit the deck had a Welsh player not too far behind, every kick that was put up in the air, had a Welsh player contesting, every maul that needed direction, had a Welsh player barrelling in, they were simply much hungrier. Even when England had the odd glimpse of flair like when Youngs broke through on his own, there were virtually no support runners and to be honest, Wales should have snotted him as he doesn't have nearly the amount of gas to finish off a move like that. It was seriously ugly to watch.
The Big Offenders
If you look at all of the news columns covering this game and all of the forums banging on about team selection, there are few names that constantly pop up. Vunipola, Youngs, Farrell and Daly. Don't get me wrong, there are other players having pretty ropey tournaments like Slade, May, Wilson, Watson (outside of the Italy game) and George, but those four names are the ones that always make headline news. As a first on this site, I'm going to individually review each of those four performances. Starting with Billy Vunipola, the stats do NOT tell the story of his performance. His stats vastly outdo his opposite number, yet his opposite number walked away with the MOTM, why is that? Well Billy Vunipola is the best player in the world at standing needlessly deep, taking a shallow pass from his Full Back 20m away from the attacking line and running into the biggest bloke on the pitch only to make 0 yards. The guy just cannot seem to break a tackle anymore and I don't believe there is a position called a sponge on the pitch right? He tackled well but not necessarily dominantly, he rarely offloaded and usually died with the ball. Don't let the stats fool you, he was anonymous in this game yet again. Youngs had a better day of it, making a couple of decisive runs and generally not making many mistakes, however, that is not good enough for an international 9. With the options we have to pick from, we should have the second worst scrum half in the competition playing game after game. He looked so slow opposite Hardy, kicked pretty aimlessly (even though he did have one decent kick when England were pegged back on their line) and his passing IS SO BAD! HIS PASSING IS SO, SO BAD. What did I say about Farrell last week? Oh yeah, all he offers Jones is a double pivot option and Jones laps it up as if he's the only one capable of supplying that service. I'm sure if you asked Devoto what he thought of that, he would be thoroughly offended. Farrell is slow, ineffectual and erratic on the ball, his territory kicking is abysmal, his predicted kick accuracy from the tee sat at 57% going into this game and his passing is often lacking direction or precision, what is the point of him in that side? As for Daly, we heaped praise on his bounce back last week against Italy but unfortunately Saturday proved yet again, that he is probably the worst Full Back in the Six Nations. He can't catch and I don't know man, that kind of seems like what you need to do at Full Back. Also when did his kicking get bad? His territory kicking is really rough and he never takes long distance smashes anymore, weird!
Those Welsh Half Backs
Wales have an embarrassment of riches at Scrum Half and Fly Half. Hardy just proved why he could even be a bolter for this Lions tour as he looks sharp as a thistle. His passing is spot on, he snipes around the fringes expertly, and he looked every bit of an experienced international during that game. Also, let's put some respect on Biggar's name. Three matches in a row now I've sat here saying that the reason Biggar has been playing so good, is because Wales play so fluidly with him that you barely notice him. His up-and-under's are top notch, his match awareness is still top level, call him what you want, but his ref chat works a treat and he offers Wales solidity when they need it. However, Sheedy looked sublime when he came on. He broke the line with clever dummies, kicked off the tee like an absolute dream, threw some great balls to big ball carriers running decisive lines and genuinely changed the whole trajectory of the match. He scored the majority of those 16 points that killed this England team off single handedly, what a player!
Where To Go From Here...
We made an article before the Six Nations stating that if people underestimate this Wales side, they will knock them for six. It's sure looking like that Six - Nations (see what I did there) will end up in Wales' trophy room once again. They just look like a winning team all of a sudden. I doubted them against both Ireland and Scotland, yet when the last twenty minutes came around, I couldn't help but feel like Wales had it in the bag. The same thing very obviously happened against England. They just need to get past this rampant France team in order to take home the Grand Slam and you know what, I think they can do it. They will smash Italy in a convincingly comfortable manner and they'll take even more confidence into that final fixture. As for England, oof I don't know. It feels like Eddie will continue to stick to his guns and drive himself straight into retirement. I do still highly rate him as a coach, but his team selection is killing off his time as England coach. Coming off of a year where he had won two trophies no less (unconvincingly I know), it's crazy to see how quick his downfall is coming. The satisfaction is antagonising fans and very obviously ignoring Premiership talents is making him a very unlikeable figure which is kind of pointless for an international coach. I don't see England improving against France, I see them trying to slug it out only to lose to a couple of easy break away tries from the French backline. Then they will take on Ireland in the battle of 'who can be the most disappointing side in Europe this year'. Big oof...
Kieran Hardy - What a player! Absolute gem uncovered in this game and he definitely rose to the occassion, what is it with the Welsh and Scrum Halves!
Callum Sheedy - It's no exageration to say that Sheedy changed the game for Wales. His speed of though, match sharpness and clinical ability brought the Welsh game to new levels.
Toby Faletau - Absolute work horse for this Welsh side, he just never seems to slow down. He makes hit after hit, disrupts well and very rarely gives away any infringements.
Louis Rees Zammit - Is that three in a row? This kid is something special, even when he doesn't mean to, he's creating try assists for fun. I thought his defensive game was especially good in this match and he showcased a whole new element to his game I didn't know existed.
Kyle Sinckler - Quietly put on a clinic against a Welsh front row who had been on tope form heading into this fixture. Tackled well, carried well and didn't put a foot wrong all game.
Maro Itoje - Unfortunately was on the wrong side of every decision this game. Gave away five penalties during key stints within the match.
Owen Farrell - Becoming a real habit now as that's five times in a row Farrell has been placed firmly in this bracket. There is potentially still a decent player in there but my oh my his reputation is in bits. If Eddie were wise, he would drop him to let him sort it all back out again out of the public eye.
Mark Wilson - It might be a bit harsh but Wilson was anonymous in this game. He does all the ugly grunt work sure, but he's largely ineffectual in both attack and defence.
Elliot Daly - The guy just couldn't catch this game! His positioning seems all wrong and he needs reverting back into the centres or on the wing before he forgets how to play there!