By Shane Williams,
A win by the skin of their teeth maybe, but this Welsh side can now take a bow having equalled the 109-year-old record sequence of 11 straight victories.
But I’m sure all the coaches and players, as well as the fans, realise they will have to be much sharper, more precise, and more accurate if they are to take the record out to 12 wins in two weeks’ time when they face England.
It was the English who halted the previous record in 1910 with a win in the first international played at Twickenham.
In those days Wales were the power in the land having beaten New Zealand in 1905, earned Grand Slams in 1908 and 1909, and beat Australia in 1909. They also went on to win a third Grand Slam in 1911. No wonder they called it a ‘Golden Era’.
These days we are in the ‘Gatland Era’ and February 23 is going to be one of the biggest challenges of his 11-year reign as the Wales coach. If he can pull that one off, then he could be in line to become the next Prince of Wales!
Fair play to the Italians. They tackled their hearts out and forced Wales to struggle at line-out time. Three of those went awry within 10 metres of their own line and that certainly can’t happen against England. If you don’t make the most of every half chance against a team as powerful as the men in white, then you simply won’t win the game. It was the first time since 2015 that Italy conceded less than three tries in what was their 19th successive defeat in the Championship.
Their physicality kept them in the game. The worry is that the much superior English physicality could take the game away from Wales in a fortnight.
Having found a way to win from a losing position at half time in France, this was far from convincing in a fixture that traditionally gives you the chance to play an expansive game.
Italy deserve to take their share of the credit. For Wales, the overall picture was one of frustration. They simply didn’t get their game going but the main positive for me was how the back row went.
Josh Navidi was man of the match, but Aaron Wainwright and Thomas Young alongside him were equally excellent. Those three topped my ratings.
I was so pleased for Thomas to get an opportunity and I think he did enough to be involved against England too. Other than that, I thought Gareth Anscombe had a big impact off the bench after replacing Dan Biggar. I was also pleased for Owen Watkin who grabbed his first Test try.
Other than that, there wasn’t much to write home about. I was at the Stadio Olimpico doing commentary for ITV and it wasn’t the best match to cover. But at the end of the day, Wales still won. That’s the most important thing.
Now we have to beat England with what I think will be a much changed team again. So, how exactly do Wales go about beating England?
The first thing to say is that they can absolutely do it. There is no doubt in my mind the players will believe that as well. Of course they have to improve. That’s obvious.
Home advantage could be crucial too. The Principality Stadium will be rocking and there is nothing quite like Wales against England in the Six Nations in Cardiff. I think England shocked everyone with their win over Ireland and I’m sure they will get the better of France at Twickenham today.
That will set up a meeting between two unbeaten teams. Something will have to give. Wales will need to go to another level physically to come out on top. England’s performance against Ireland was one of the more brutal displays at Test level. They just beat the opposition up.
It goes without saying that Wales can’t afford to let that happen to them. I’d consider partnering Alun Wyn Jones with Jake Ball at lock to add that extra ballast. Adam Beard is still unbeaten as a Wales player, but I think England is the sort of game where Jake can thrive.
He had a solid game against Italy, but Warren clearly likes Adam. Ken Owens and Ross Moriarty will also return to help Wales in the tight. Behind the scrum is where things get interesting. I really like the combination of Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade as England’s new centre pairing. If Wales can stop them, they can come out on top.
We saw in Ireland how dangerous Tuilagi can be. I played with him briefly on the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour. He can’t be allowed to lay a platform for England.
They will use Tuilagi as a direct runner off nine and 10. He will attempt to breach the gain line time and time again. England will then hope that off that the likes of Owen Farrell and Slade can distribute the ball wider to Jonny May and Co. Wales will then be in trouble.
This is where Dan, Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies come in. I would opt for Dan again at fly-half against England.
That’s a big call because he wasn’t at his best against Italy and it’s nothing against Anscombe who played well in Rome. I just think Dan’s combativeness will allow him to get right in Farrell’s face and he simply won’t have two bad games in a row. He doesn’t do that.
Hadleigh and Jon need to shut down Tuilagi with some savvy defending. Jon is vital here. He was his usual excellent self as captain against Italy despite one poor pass which went to Jonah Holmes instead of Liam Williams. For me he is the best 13 in the world, certainly defensively.
He will have to be at his best to shut England down. As usual, if Shaun Edwards can work his magic in defence, Wales can do it.
The other key selection calls for the England game will be at scrum-half and possibly full-back. We will have to see if Leigh Halfpenny comes back into contention following his concussion.
I wouldn’t rush him straight back into action after a head knock and a game against England would be too much, too soon. I’d stick with Liam, George North and Josh Adams in the back three, with Hadleigh and Jon in midfield and Dan at 10. At scrum-half, I’d plump for Gareth Davies, purely because of his big match experience. Tomos Williams and Aled Davies have done OK in the two games so far, but there still seems a bit of confusion as to our first-choice nine is.
Gareth in my view needs to stake his claim with a big performance against England. The countdown will now begin in earnest for that game. Wales go into it two from two in this Six Nations, unbeaten in a year, and with a place in history on the cards.
They couldn’t be in finer fettle even though there was frustration in Rome
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