Wales get the 2022/23 northern hemisphere international rugby season underway this weekend welcoming the All Blacks to the Principality Stadium on the back of a rollercoaster 12 months.
After a struggle dealing with the transition in the immediate post-Gatland era, Wayne Pivac’s men had a generally positive Autumn Series in 2021 with a brave performance against New Zealand without any English-based players being followed up by wins over Australia and Fiji, and a competitive showing against South Africa.
That was unfortunately followed up by a tough Six Nations where, although only one game was lost by more than a score, securing just one narrow win over Scotland saw the men in red finish fifth in the table, only above Italy on bonus points, a side we would lose to at home in the final round of the tournament.
Expectations were subsequently low going into the summer tour to face the Springboks on their turf, and although those expectations were somewhat surpassed with some brave performances and a win against a second string opposition, there are still question marks lingering as we enter a Rugby World Cup year.
For me the most stark question is “can this Wales attack get going?”, as the stats from last season are pretty eye-opening. Of the top nine sides across the Six Nations and The Rugby Championship, the Welsh attack is bottom ranked in tries-per-game and points-per-game, and by a decent distance at that.
Only Wales, with 1.8 tries-per-game across the 21/22 campaign, are scoring fewer than two tries-per-game, with each of the other eight sides scoring at least 2.2 and the top scorers over four tries-per-game. Similarly, with 19.4 points-per-game, Wales are the only side under 20 points-per-game, with each of the other eight sides scoring at least 22.6 and the top scorers over 30 points-per-game.
Of course each team has a different fixture list so it is not an exact science, but generally the quality of the opposition evens out over the course of the three international windows, and it’s clear that, for whatever reason, the Welsh attack is just not clicking at the moment.
The good news is that it’s not due to lack of talent or sheer firepower, and this is where my hope comes from that the upcoming Autumn Series could be the month where we see the best of Wales with ball-in-hand, taking games by the scruff of the neck and playing positively in order to actively win games, rather than simply trying to stay in-touch with proceedings and nicking results if we can.
In Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit we have two of the best wingers in the world at our disposal; electric players who can create something out of nothing and possess incredible try scoring records. In the centre George North is still a world class player who can cause any defence problems, while Nick Tompkins continues to grow into his role as the Swiss Army Knife of inside centres, getting the hard work done to lay a platform for others outside him.
At half-back both Tomos Williams and Kieran Hardy are high level attacking scrum-halves on their day, offering a speed and quality to their service from the breakdown and providing a running threat themselves, while I truly believe that Gareth Anscombe is an underrated fly-half both in and outside of Wales, with the game management skills to control proceedings and that little spark of magic that gets the attack moving.
Put all that on the base of one of the best full-backs in the world over the last decade in the form of Leigh Halfpenny, a defensive and aerial rock who can launch counter attacks from nothing, and we’ve got all the ingredients to have an attack that is up there with the best and that can lead us deep into the knockouts of the World Cup.
It’s up to the coaches and the players to release the shackles now and get that ball moving. It may not be a particularly quick process, it may result in a few odd scorelines over the next few weeks, but it will hopefully takes us to a place where we can push on at France 2023, rather than repeating previous episodes of being physical, suffering injuries and ultimately falling down at key moments.