Wales

Morale-boosting finish to Wayne’s annus horriblis

SO that’s the end of 2020 for Wales. I think most people will be glad to see the back of this year after it has been dominated by Covid-19 and I’m sure Wayne Pivac and his team will feel the same.

It has been a very disappointing 12 months and my hope is that not only the health of the nation, but also the wellbeing of the team will improve dramatically in 2021.

With the coronavirus vaccine around the corner we will hopefully see fans back in stadiums for the Six Nations. By the same token, Wales as a team also need a shot in the arm.

It was a morale-boosting way to finish with a win over Italy. Losing was not an option as the Azzurri are no great shakes. Wales did the job and now they need to take that form and momentum into the Six Nations which will arrive very quickly once Christmas and New Year is done.

At one stage I was very worried about the Italy game, especially when they went ahead in the second half. All those memories of losing to the Azzurri in 2007 started coming back… that was certainly one to forget!

In the end Wales did enough and we have to hand plaudits for the win to Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau who were just brilliant. They are world-class rugby players – we all know that – and they certainly delivered against the Italians.

Wales have struggled this autumn – you can’t get away from that – but part of the reason they have done so in my opinion is because their experienced players have either not been fully fit or not firing on all cylinders.

It was no coincidence for me that Wales ended up with a decent enough win against Italy because the likes of Justin, Taulupe, George North and Tomas Francis all had excellent games.

I was really disappointed to see Johnny Williams pull out at the 11th hour with a hamstring injury. For me Johnny has been the find of the autumn.

He is a powerful ball carrier who gets Wales over the gainline time and time again. He is my 12 for the start of the Six Nations.

Jonathan Davies came in at the 11th hour to replace him and I have to admit it concerns me the amount of tape he wears to bandage up his leg.

We know the injuries Jon has had and I just hope he’s not putting his long-term health at risk by carrying on. He was solid enough against Italy, but he will get better I’m sure. I was really pleased to see George go well at centre.

He got penalised early on after claiming a high ball, but I thought that catch gave him plenty of confidence. We all know what George can do, but I was really impressed by his work ethic and determination against the Italians. He carried and tackled relentlessly and I thought he deserved the reward of his late try.

Wales made a good start to the game to go 14-0 up. Justin and Taulupe did well to combine for Kieran Hardy’s try and Sam Parry’s effort was all down to the forwards with a couple of carries close to the line.

Those two tries will give the new players confidence moving forward.

After that though there were some concerning moments and the middle third of the game wasn’t great.

The lineout was marginally better than in previous weeks with Sam throwing in. A couple went astray, but on the whole there was improvement there.

An area where Wales still aren’t learning is the breakdown. What a mess! To concede eight first-half penalties at the contact area was unforgivable and it allowed Italy to get a platform from which they scored a nice try.

The issues I have with the Welsh breakdown are twofold. First, it’s the fact that the team are having the same issue time after time and game after game. Second, within matches the players aren’t adapting to the way the referee is operating. Against Italy, Wayne Barnes penalised Wales several times for the same issue – not releasing the ball carrier.

At one stage Wayne even walked up and down the Welsh line and told the players what the issue was. They still didn’t learn and that is criminal! You have to be adaptable at this level.

A better team than Italy would have made Wales pay and even a side like the Azzurri managed to take the lead as they made the most of Josh Adams’ deserved yellow card.

Wales scrum-half Gareth Davies
Impact: Wales scrum-half Gareth Davies scored a try off the bench in the 38-18 Autumn Nations Cup win at Parc y Scarlets. Michael Steele/Getty Images

After the break Wales’ senior guys stepped up. I liked the impact of Gareth Davies off the bench and he was rewarded with a try.

Callum Sheedy made a couple of early errors, but he kept going nicely and played a key part in the late try for Justin. He is a young player who is still learning at this level and like players such as Hardy, Louis Rees-Zammit and Jim Botham, he will only get better.

Sheedy also kicked very, very well from the tee and I like his temperament. He is calm and unflustered and that bodes well.

All of the 11 new caps Wayne has blooded in 2020 will be the better for their experiences, but the Six Nations will be a different beast altogether. That is the acid test for Wayne.

He has copped plenty of flak, but we must remember his first full year in the job has been all over the place – mainly due to Covid.

One thing Wayne has to look at over his Christmas pudding is the breakdown. I’ve touched on it already, but I repeat the issue because of its fundamental importance to winning Test matches. If you are constantly giving away penalties at the contact area, it kills you. Wayne and Gethin Jenkins need to pore over the video nasty to get the answers. If they don’t find those answers, then Wales won’t compete in the Six Nations. It’s as simple as that.

I’m sure Wales will pick a more settled side for the tournament and I really hope Josh Navidi will be back from concussion.

There will also be the injuries which Alun Wyn Jones and Liam Williams suffered against Italy. Time will tell how bad those are, but the hope is that after ending 2020 as they started it with a win over Italy, Wales can go to the next level in the 12 months to come.

Wayne certainly has the players to do that, but improvement will be needed to challenge teams like England, France and Ireland.

For me England and France are the favourites for the Six Nations with Wales as underdogs. We will see what happens, but Wales are always a dangerous beast when they are less fancied. Hopefully we will see them start 2021 with a bang.

SHANE WILLIAMS

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