View from next door: Argentina

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Well I’m not saying I’m psychic, but in last week’s blog looking at the New Zealand game I wrote “it actually wouldn’t surprise me if we bounced back to grind a win out against Argentina next week”.

And what happened? Wales bounced back from defeat at the hands of the All Blacks to grind out a win over Argentina on Saturday. It wasn’t particularly pretty, it won’t be particularly memorable, but a win’s a win and I expect Wayne Pivac would have taken whatever he could get his hands on results-wise at the Principality Stadium.

To start with, as much as the head coach takes plenty of criticism, it should also be pointed out when he gets it right, and the team selection was a good one. Whether injury enforced or tactical, Dillon Lewis, Dan Lydiate and Jac Morgan coming into the starting XV or match day 23 worked out superbly, as did the switching of Louis Rees-Zammit to full-back.

With Lewis still only 26, young in “prop years”, Morgan just 22 and Rees-Zammit still 21 they are selections that bode very well for the future, especially for Lewis and Rees-Zammit in positions where there is a lack of strength-in-depth and/or the generally accepted starters are into the second half of their careers.

There was also some noticeably, what I will describe as, pragmatic tactical decisions, in a bid to avoid calling them negative, as the attack tightened up considerably, the territory game became a primary focus and the set piece was worked on heavily to ensure that Wales maintained the upper hand for as much of the game as possible.

The men in red kicked heavily from the middle third of the field, rarely creeping over five phases of attack here and ensuring that Argentina were pinned back in their own half or having to clear their lines and giving the hosts the chance to run the ball back with interest from halfway. With kicking battles generally won by Wales too, field position was readily available.

Defensively things were a lot tighter, led by the likes of Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, Tomos Williams and George North bringing a line speed that put the Pumas under intense pressure on a slippery surface and with a greasy ball, forcing errors or allowing Lewis and Morgan to disrupt the breakdown.

With the lineout functioning well, the driving maul looking sharper than it has for a number of years, and the scrum generally on top, it meant that this week the attack was not necessarily at the front and centre of what Wales did, but that too looked better thanks to a tightening up of the system on the day.

The forwards were more compact in their set up, working hard around the fringes of the breakdown to come off the shoulder of particularly Williams at 9 with a bit of pace and hit weak shoulders, as well as having enough support to secure the ball, and importantly, secure some quick ball with which to play. The attacking set before Ken Owens should have scored, for example, was a very positive one.

With the backs then still permitted to roam relatively freely around that narrower forwards structure, and a wide forward still stationed in the outer channels, there were opportunities to get the ball in the hands of danger men and support in place to ensure no cheap turnovers were conceded. Even though line breaks were at a premium, enough pressure was asserted to milk penalties from Argentina.

In the end Wales were good value for the win, but the concern will be what the future holds. This was not a performance that could be repeated to ensure sustainable results. The Pumas were off the pace, they were coming off a huge win over England and they noticeably struggled to replicate the emotional and physical energy needed to back that up, while the home side clearly had a point to prove.

Playing low-risk pragmatic rugby was the right decision in the circumstances, but as confidence grows so does the need to go out and win test matches, rather than essentially avoiding losing them. Unless we suddenly grow a pack the size of the Springboks, we won’t compete at next year’s Rugby World Cup playing that way.

The win over Argentina has to be the base to build off, but with wins over Italy in the Autumn of 2020, Australia in the Autumn of 2021, Scotland in the 2022 Six Nations and South Africa in the second test of the summer just gone providing similar bases that weren’t capitalised upon, it’s difficult to have confidence that Pivac’s side will kick on to bigger and better things.

A win over Georgia will likely be followed up by a defeat against Australia as the English-based players head back to their clubs, and Wales will be in a limbo until the start of the 2023 Six Nations. It’s in February against Ireland in Cardiff that we will see if this is the time that the national team can convert opportunity into success.

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