If there’s one thing you can say for any Wales v England clash, in whatever competition it is played in, it’s that it stirs strong emotion. That is especially true after the week that was for the Welsh squad.
It’s for that reason you cannot really criticise anyone in a red jersey on the field of the Principality Stadium on Saturday. Despite a mountain of off-field uncertainty around not only if the game was going to be played, but if many are going to have jobs in three months’ time and what sort of contract they may be forced into signing if they do, they battled hard for 80 gruelling minutes.
Nevertheless the emotion of the game does spill over into the stands, as well as pubs and living rooms across the nation, with many Wales supporters outspokenly disappointed with a performance that saw the national team fall to the old rivals from across the Severn Bridge without really firing any shots.
I think that forgets or misunderstands just how serious the evolution this team is going through has to be. England are in a similar position with a new coaching team in place for just a couple of weeks but are starting from a much higher base and with a player pool that is both full of quality and vast, giving Steve Borthwick a number of options when building his side.
Wales, meanwhile, are still recovering from a wasted three years under Wayne Pivac whereby the squad was not overhauled as it needed to be. Instead it continued to rely on a core of ageing players and failed to properly expose new players to international rugby, leaving the squad in it’s current predicament whereby the options are largely either 30+ years old with 50+ caps, or below 23 years old with fewer than 10 caps.
Now I don’t think bringing Warren Gatland back was necessarily the right decision, but he is doing the right thing in terms of rotating through combinations of old and young, desperately trying to find the right balance of youth and experience while testing out which senior players are still capable of performing at the top level and which new talent has what it takes to make the step up.
As a result we are seeing Wales sides taking to the field that are not necessarily totally aligned with what the team are trying to achieve tactically. Take Saturday’s kicking game, for example. A lot of comments, perhaps influenced by the short-on-insight commentary offered by the BBC, largely decried the kicking game for being too long to compete in the air, or simply for kicking too much overall.
There is an element to those comments that misunderstands why and how teams are kicking in the modern game, which mainly involved looking at risk averse options when behind the opposition 10 metre line in order to avoid cheap turnovers that give the opponent good field position and that open up the opportunity to pressure the opponent in their territory with the aim of getting the ball back in a good attacking spot.
Wales were one of the pioneers of this during Gatland’s first spell in charge as the kicking games of Rhys Priestland and Dan Biggar pinned the opposition back before the relentless kick chase and defensive line speed turned up to pile pressure on the opponent, twinned with jackal threats that won turnovers for fun.
Unfortunately the rotation of team selection on Saturday meant that, having firstly tried the overwhelmingly experienced selection against Ireland and then going with an experienced back line behind an inexperienced pack against Scotland, it was the turn of an experienced pack to play in front of an inexperienced back line against England.
As a result that relentless kick chase, line speed and, particularly, the jackal threat was not evident despite the kicking game having the desired impact of keeping the English at arms’ length in a defensive sense for the majority of the game, because the pack lacked dynamism and an out-and-out jackal.
That lack of dynamism spilled over into the attacking game too as when the kicking game and some sharp work taking the ball to the gain line from Owen Williams gave Wales good field position to play from, the ability of the forwards to carry, ruck clean and come on to the ball at tempo often saw offensive sets get stuck in the mud and ultimately peter out.
The positive for Gatland though is that those issues were relatively new as they were not as prevalent against Scotland whereby the pack was younger and more dynamic thanks to the selections of Dillon Lewis, Dafydd Jenkins, Jac Morgan and Tommy Reffell.
It all leads to a situation against Italy where the head coach now has to put his faith in a team largely made up of younger and less experienced players. Having the fresher and younger legs in the pack will be necessary to take Wales to the next level in attack and deal with the Italians in defence, while the new midfield trio was one of few bright points for the men in red on Saturday.
That’s not to say a selection along those lines will solve all ills for the Welsh. Supporters still have to recognise that we are building up from an incredibly low base, and also be prepared that picking a young and inexperienced side will inevitably lead to some errors that could be costly at the top level of test match rugby.
However, if Wales are to build towards a respectable Rugby World Cup and on to a strong four year cycle beyond this September/October, the balance will be found in leaning more towards the new than the old.