Rewind a week and there’s a social media storm brewing. Wales have lost to England and in typical fashion, there needs to be blame. Rob Howley is a candidate for dreadful tactical substitutions, the attack couldn’t capitalise on long periods of pressure, Alun Wyn Jones is up there for turning down easy points and Jonathan Davies for a really poor clearance kick.
However, the majority of online vitriol was reserved for one man, Alex Cuthbert. People pointed at his statistics of four metres made from seven carries. They looked at his attempt to stop Elliot Daly for the match-winning try, and even at his part in Ben Youngs’ opening score. The word ‘scapegoat’ certainly came to my mind.
There was a complete failure to look at the wider game when it came to the undeserved criticism. Cuthbert didn’t receive the ball until the 33rd minute, although he did setup Dan Biggar’s first half break with an excellent leap to compete for a Rhys Webb box-kick. To compare, the much praised Liam Williams only made one carry in that opening half hour.
Make no mistake though, the Cardiff Blues winger was there. He waited with chalk on his boots as the ball got stuck in Wales’ midfield time after time, before coming hunting off his wing only to be ignored in that channel off the first and second receiver’s shoulder, the one that worked so well for him on the British and Irish Lions tour in 2013.
I’m not saying he was perfect. There was the spilled possession in midfield, and he could have got a grip of the attack in Liam Williams style and literally told Rhys Webb where he wanted the ball, but quite simply no back should be doing that. There’s been a noticeable backwards step taken in terms of expansive attacking since the Autumn.
In defence, there was a superb try saving tackle on Danny Care before that last play with Daly. Defending on the wing is a thankless task. If you solo blitz you look out of position, and if you drift then you get accused of not committing. He chased up the Jon Davies kick, chose to try and use the touchline but could not compete with the Englisman’s pace.
Just for a bit of balance, I am very confident in saying that George North would not have made that tackle. Not a criticism of either player, a reflection on the speed of Daly and the isolation that the right winger suffered as a result of the England counter-attack.
In fairness to the written media, there were attempts to jump to the defence of Alex Cuthbert. The Times and Wales Online, through the medium of Stuart Barnes and Shane Williams, came out with articles averting blame, but for me they both missed the point.
The issue here is not Cuthbert lacking confidence. In fact, as performances against Bristol and Bath in the fixtures before the Six Nations showed, he wasn’t in the middle of any form crisis, as such. No, the issue is selecting players if you are not going to play to their strengths.
Alex Cuthbert has two great strengths to his game. Firstly, with the ball on the right wing in a few yards of space to run. If possession can be shifted out to him early with a bit of pace, he will at least get you on the front foot nine times out of ten.
Secondly, the cutting runs in midfield off first phase or quick ball. If a team gets a good dummy runner or two in and can feed Cuthbert then he loves finding the gap in the channel either side of the opposition 12.
Take a look at his performance for Cardiff Blues against Treviso on Saturday. Just a week after supposedly being completely lacking in all confidence, he was one of the standout performers in a devastating second half performance that saw him single-handedly create a try for Willis Halaholo before grabbing a solo score of his own.
The fans’ man of the match award awaited, his Cardiff teammates were full of praise on Twitter and in the press. Cuthbert didn’t need time away from the Wales setup to rebuild his confidence, he needed time with a team who play to his strengths, and he certainly showed what he could do.
Don’t get me wrong, this Alex Cuthbert isn’t the same as that of 2013, but he can be if allowed to play the way he wants to. So, Robert Howley, request the tape of Cardiff Blues v Treviso, study it carefully and when you next need the big horse on the right wing, let him play. In the mean time, can we keep him at the Arms Park please?