Wales wrapped up a southern hemisphere tour of their own on Friday morning, with a 17-19 victory over Samoa in Apia following on from the 6-24 defeat of Tonga in Auckland last week.
As ever in a Lions year it was an experimental squad, with 12 players missing in New Zealand, while a further four joined them between Wales’ two tests. With Warren Gatland and Rob Howley also not available, Robin McBryde led a coaching staff made up of regular defence coach Shaun Edwards and guest coaches Matt Sherratt of Cardiff Blues and Wales 7s’ Gareth Williams.
With the team flying home and the players preparing for a well deserved break, I’ve had a look at what the Wales coaching staff would have learned from two weeks down under.
New boys come good
Despite the management’s continued insistence that this tour was not a development tour, there was certainly an experimental feel about the side as McBryde’s squad included 14 uncapped players.
11 of those made it onto the pitch at one point across the two games, and it’s fair to say that those with any decent quantity of game time certainly did themselves no harm in terms of their future selection chances.
Ryan Elias was solid in the set piece against Samoa, while Dillon Lewis won a number of scrum penalties as well as assisting the match winning try. Seb Davies did himself no harm at all with some committed defensive performances, and formed a solid lock partnership with Rory Thornton that was encouraging for the future.
In the backs we saw Aled Davies look sharp at scrum-half against Samoa, while Steff Evans’ two tries won the game. Easily finished but you have to be in position to get the easy run-ins, and he looked threatening when he kept ball in hand too.
Wyn Jones, Adam Beard, Ollie Griffiths, Thomas Young and Owen Williams all made debuts too, very encouraging for the future, but more importantly building strength in depth to boost the current squad ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
An embarrassment of back row riches
It’s fair to say that most national sides would struggle if their four best back row players were unavailable, or all featuring for the Lions as is the case in this instance, however in Wales’ case there’s no concerns at all.
With Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau and Ross Moriarty away, we were still able to call on one of the Aviva Premiership’s players of the season, Thomas Young, a Pro12 winner in Aaron Shingler, Mr. Consistent himself Josh Navidi, and two of the brightest young prospects in the Northern Hemisphere, Ellis Jenkins and Ollie Griffiths.
In fact, Wales were even able to leave arguably the Pro12’s in-form player at home, despite much fan and media clamour for James Davies to be involved.
This tour added a lot to the back row depth, and crucially has added some diversity to the options. The very impressive Shingler was a defensive rock and proved very mobile, while Navidi offers a lighter but more mobile option at number eight, as opposed to the heavy carrying Faletau or Moriarty.
Add in Griffiths, Jenkins and Young, the new style all-action flankers who carry, jackal and tackle, and you have a diverse and effective pool of back row players to select from.
A whole lot of heart
The worry heading into this tour was that two games in a week against big, bruising Pacific Island opposition might be a big challenge for a generally young and inexperienced Wales squad. Especially considering no Welsh side had ever won on Samoan soil.
However, two battling performances in less than ideal conditions later, to come home with two wins is certainly testament to the heart shown by the players. Especially in Samoa, they battled away for 80 minutes and overcame a fairly lacklustre first 40 minutes to get the win.
With the news that broke after the game of illness targeting the Welsh camp, and causing players to be sick even at half-time in Apia, it just underlined the desire of the players to impress in the jersey, again boding well for the future custodians of the three feathers.
When Jamie Roberts was named captain for the tour there was a general response of sympathy, after he was so strongly linked with a surprise Lions call-up the day before the initial squad announcement, before being brutally ignored by Warren Gatland who has modelled a team around him for so long.
Instead he led the young Welshmen to the Southern Hemisphere, but all that’s been left is a feeling that perhaps the time has come to move on from Jamie Roberts.
With just one pass completed across both games, the feeling that he’s a one trick pony in attack has been somewhat proved, especially when you consider that there were no clean breaks or defenders beaten by the inside centre. Not particularly great stats to prove that you can be part of a dynamic attacking side.
His presence in the 12 shirt was also frustrating in that it forced Scott Williams to outside centre in the first game, when he is clearly the in-form inside centre and arguably should’ve been on the Lions tour, while the chance to look at Owen Williams as a footballing second five-eighth was totally missed.
As Jonathan Davies proves that he is one of the World’s best outside centres up against New Zealand, the need for an inside centre with distribution skills becomes ever more apparent, to feed the likes of Foxy and the talented Liam Williams and Steff Evans in the back three. Jamie Roberts has been a great servant to Welsh rugby, but the time for change is coming.
The missing men
Wales under the Warren Gatland regime have never been a side that particularly takes any notice of fan or media pressure. The coaching staff do things their way and you can either like it or lump it.
This tour, despite being under McBryde’s stewardship, was no different as Wales managed to go both games without including either Rhys Patchell or Keelan Giles in their matchday squad.
Now, whether Giles would have made an impact against the bruising Pacific Islanders is up for debate, but off the bench against some lumbering Samoan players he may well have found some space to run into, and with Scott and Owen Williams covering roughly the same positions on the bench there would’ve been no harm in giving the young Ospreys 25 minutes to show his pace.
With Patchell he’s certainly one of the most naturally gifted players that Wales has produced in a long time, and with height, strength and long kicking attributes to go with it he may well have made an impact in one or both games.
Instead he was merely a tackle bag holder, and on the subject of Scarlets players, don’t even get them started on the exclusion of James Davies in Llanelli! A few opportunities certainly were missed this summer.
All in all though it was a positive tour, and one which certainly gives cause for some cautious optimism when looking ahead to the 2019 World Cup and definitely the 2023 World Cup.
Whether the young players will be given a chance to get some minutes in when the full coaching staff return remains to be seen, as does whether those in the matchday squads during the Autumn Internationals will be able to play a free-flowing, attacking brand of rugby, but one thing we do know is that the players are capable.
Now it is all eyes on the management, and if they can adapt their deep set habits.