Wales’ autumn internationals campaign came to an end on Saturday evening in a manner that was as fairly low-key as the four weeks as a whole.
With the huge clashes of England v South Africa and France v New Zealand either side of Wayne Pivac’s men hosting Australia at the Principality Stadium, there was a definite feeling of our game being the minis tag rugby that comes on to the field at half-time. You are sort of watching and clap when something good happens, but you’re mostly heading to the bar, chatting and taking a comfort break.
That sideshow feeling has been the story of Wales’ autumn really as the first game against the All Blacks came outside the official test window, meaning players based in England were unavailable, before a clash with the Springboks was without a number of injured senior internationals. Then the Fiji game was the classic autumn tier two event, before a poor Wallabies side arrived with everyone happy for the window to end.
As a result the 2021 autumn internationals will not be a particularly memorable one, but for those who have paid attention it may well be a critical one as Wayne Pivac builds to the 2023 World Cup.
I wrote a few weeks ago about how the absence of those injured players; the likes of Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, George North and Leigh Halfpenny for example, have opened the door for a number of fringe players to experience starting regular against the best sides in the world, as well as a number of new and young faces to make debuts or add to a handful of caps.
That has seen an improvement as the weeks have gone on with the likes of Ryan Elias, Seb Davies, Ellis Jenkins, Taine Basham, Aaron Wainwright and Johnny McNicholl all now viable starting options, while the centre partnership of Nick Tompkins and Willis Halaholo is certainly a burgeoning one to keep a keen eye on.
With WillGriff John, Bradley Roberts, Ben Carter and Christ Tshiunza all impressing in cameos alongside them the depth continues to develop, especially in that engine room where Jake Ball and Cory Hill have both been lost from the player pool over the last six months.
It’s not all positive for Pivac and his coaching staff though, but to look at things from a glass half full perspective they have now found a few key elements of their game to fix heading into the 2022 Guinness Six Nations and beyond in order to be ready to compete with the best again.
The main aspect to improve on is the set piece, and that means the entire spectrum of the set piece rather than just being a vague statement that a large area of the game has to improve.
Although going up against some of the best packs around the scrum was on the back foot in each of the four games, with former England and British & Irish Lions prop Alex Corbisiero giving WalesOnline a fantastically detailed insight into the mechanics behind why that may be the case.
Then the lineout did recover from a shaky start against New Zealand but rarely, if ever, offered a top level attacking platform as it played safe rather to secure possession rather than act as a springboard. With new combinations at hooker, jumper and caller that isn’t entirely unexpected, but a lineout system that transcends the personnel selected and works for anyone called up is a priority.
Finally, the maul attack and defence relies so heavily on Adam Beard as a world class operator in this area that it can sometimes slide under the radar in terms of being a part of our game that needs work, but it continues to be somewhere we can be weak in when it could become a real attacking weapon going forward and a target for turnovers in defence.
It’s a lot of work for Wales forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys, and he’s no doubt feeling the pressure with Pivac not afraid of mixing up his backroom staff, just ask Byron Hayward!
However, the New Zealander does not fully escape my criticism as I continue to be dismayed by his selection of Dan Biggar at fly-half and how that contradicts his and Stephen Jones’ wider and higher tempo attacking game plan.
I continue to be a big fan of Biggar, in fact I don’t believe there to be a better defensive 10, attacking kicking 10, game managing 10 or better 10 in the air than him in world rugby, making him ideal for a role as a replacement to come on in the last 30 minutes and manage a lead, but all of Callum Sheedy, Gareth Anscombe, Rhys Priestland and Jarrod Evans continue to prove they are better playmaking and carrying threats.
It’s a vicious circle in Wales’ attack as the ball carriers get stick for not getting over the gain line, the forwards get stick for poor attacking breakdown work and then Pivac & Jones get stick for a seemingly ponderous game plan, but for me that stems from the fact that the fly-half doesn’t stand flat in order to create space for the carriers to get over the gain line and create the quick ball to play off.
Lots of food for thought though as the coaches head off to review the autumn and prepare for the Six Nations, but they do it knowing the player pool to pick from is a lot deeper, stronger and more experienced, and that their side can beat good quality opposition even without star names and when not playing particularly well.