Georgia almost secured a famous upset at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday as they came within a whisker of defeating Wales to claim a maiden victory over Six Nations opposition, with scrum controversy yet again rearing it’s head for Warren Gatland’s men.
The Wales Head Coach had decided to make 14 changes to the starting side which lost out to Australia last week, only Liam Williams keeping his place by switching from wing to full-back, while youngsters Leon Brown, Adam Beard and Seb Davies were all offered first home starts in a Wales jersey.
Despite many observers expressing doubt this was a wise tactic, it was the Welsh who dominated the opening exchanges of the game, Rhys Webb particularly looking sharp with a break from a tap-penalty, but it would be Rhys Priestland to open the scoring with a penalty as Georgia failed to roll away.
From the kick-off the visitors would infringe on the floor again, and the kick to the corner returned Wales to the red zone. From first phase attack a clever inside pass to Alex Cuthbert saw the big winger crash over the line, but an effective cover tackle from scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze prevented him from putting the ball down.
Georgia briefly cleared their lines thanks to two penalties, but almost offered the opening try of the game on a plate to Priestland as they overthrew a lineout, only for Kris Dacey to be harshly adjudged as having knocked the ball on when flicking it on to the fly-half.
The visitors continued to hold on to possession, but a mistake from fly-half Lasha Khmaladze saw him kick the ball out on the full and Wales were back on the attack.
Another penalty won saw Priestland take the hosts back to the corner, and off the back of the maul the fly-half called a wrap around play before throwing the ball wide to a free Hallam Amos who finished in the corner.
A period of pressure followed from Georgia, who went through 19 phases in and around the Welsh 22, carrying hard at a well organised defence as they showed where their game needs improving, the structure and speed of their attacking phase play.
Only a Nicky Smith rip wrestled possession from them, and Wales counter-attacked brilliantly. Leon Brown, Seb Davies and Sam Cross combined to free the backs out wide as Scott Williams and Liam Williams straightened the line and Hallam Amos sprinted clear.
Unfortunately the TMO decided that, in the action of ripping the ball from the opposition player, Smith had in fact knocked it on and the try was ruled out. From the resulting scrum there was insult added to injury and Georgia won a penalty to make the score 10-3.
The final 10 minutes of the half saw Wales dominate possession, but struggle to adapt to facing a well organised and clever Georgian drift defence which stopped Welsh carriers making any decent yardage and prevented the backs from working an effective overlap.
In fact it was the visitors who made the biggest threat to a try line, as Giorgi Koshadze chipped over for his opposite winger Mirian Modebadze to chase. Only a covering Alex Cuthbert prevented Los Lelos from having the chance to draw level.
Turning down a number of easily kickable penalties was a brave tactic from Dan Lydiate, Wales captain on the day, but unfortunately his troops did not respond effectively to the challenge and eventually a knock on at the maul left the home side well short of the points total they should have achieved.
That was the last time Wales were properly on the front foot as the second half fell into a myriad of handling errors and scrum penalties.
An early breakout from behind their own try line saw Hallam Amos again stretch his legs, but the drift defence caught him out, and when the ball started going to the ground, it was the queue for a strong and experienced Georgian tight five to turn up the pressure on a Wales pack that, Lydiate aside, lacked international minutes.
Soso Matiashvili brought Los Lelos to just four points behind on 48 minutes with a penalty won at the scrum, and Georgia again won penalties at the scrum, only yet more inability to manufacture a line break stopping them adding to the scoreboard.
Eventually Priestland nudged Wales back out to a seven point lead as the Georgians were penalised for a high tackle, but Warren Gatland’s men blew a great chance to extend the lead further when mis-communication resulted in nobody jumping for a lineout in the opposition 22.
From there it was all Georgia for the final 10 minutes of the game as they pummelled a Wales try line being valiantly defended by the home side. Temporary reprieves were granted when the Welsh front row won a rare scrum penalty and secured a turnover, but Los Lelos found their way back into the redzone each time.
Controversey began to reign as the clock ticked beyond the 80th minute, with the visitors camped inside the Welsh five-metre line, and replacement tighthead prop Tomos Francis cynically entered a breakdown from the side and took out the scrum-half.
Referee Mathieu Raynal was quick to sin-bin the Exeter Chief, requiring a new front row forward to take the field as Georgia, wisely, opted for the scrum.
Leon Brown, who was ‘tactically’ changed earlier in the game was stripped and ready to return as World Rugby laws require, however he was then mysteriously withdrawn and Kris Dacey came running on, necessitating uncontested scrums as Wales had no recognised tighthead.
It later transpired that Brown had cramp in his calf, rendering him unable to take the field. However, with memories of the incident at the Stade De France in the 100 minute match last Six Nations still fresh in the memory, an air of suspicion hangs over the Wales camp in the aftermath of the game.
With scrums now off the table, Georgia went to the lineout, but after more phases of hammering on the door, it was locked and bolted by Mr Raynal penalising the visitors for going off their feet.
A 13-6 victory for Wales, but a very hollow feeling was experienced upon the final whistle as an abject second half, coupled with the replacement controversy, left many fans yet again questioning the coaching regime following a glimmer of positivity last week.
With New Zealand next up at the Millennium the chances of securing a win over the All Blacks look slim at best, some would say nigh on impossible. The handicap offered by bookmakers may well be very telling.
At the end of last week’s match review I noted that continuity in squad selection will be key as the Welsh game plan is evolved from ‘Warrenball” to a more expansive style of play incorporating a second playmaker at the inside centre position.
However, 14 changes, with many young players thrown in at the deep end, backfired massively, with no cohesion through the midfield, and a tight five beaten and bullied by Georgia from start to finish, especially at the set piece.
Individual positives for Hallam Amos, Rhys Priestland, Rhys Webb and Josh Navidi aside, the negatives massively outweigh the positives from a side that looked thrown together and poorly coached.
Big improvements are needed ahead of Steve Hansen and his band of World’s best arriving, there’s no chance we have the time to make them.