View from next door: Italy & France

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In truth it’s probably quite a sad reflection on where Welsh rugby is at the moment, but considering the events of the last few years, if we’re honest, but particularly the last few weeks, to come away from a tour of mainland Europe with a decent win over Italy and a brave performance against France is a solid enough return.

On the back of the tough afternoon against England in round three the improvements over the last week were particularly noticeable around the kick chase and defensive line speed.

At the Principality Stadium the English had marshalled the kicking game very well with Freddie Steward under the high ball, some clever escort lines, and then a physical possession game preventing Wales from putting pressure on post-kick.

In Rome, and then at times in Paris too, the kick chase went up a level from Warren Gatland’s side. Winning the ball back between our own and the opposition ten metre line, following up kicks with an intensity in our defensive line speed that put pressure on and forced turnovers, and even resulting in tries thanks to chasing down seemingly lost causes and the funny old bounce of a rugby ball.

The slow decline of the national team since the 2019 Rugby World Cup has clearly left confidence at a seriously low ebb, while the failure to evolve the core group of players within the squad has left players either ploughing on towards the end of their careers or trying desperately to gain experience at the outset of their careers.

As a result there needs to be a building up of performance and getting the kicking and kick chase game right will be the bed rock of that, as it was under Gatland during his first spell in charge, and as rugby union generally demands in the modern era. As Italy have found out to their detriment, playing exciting rugby and trying to attack from deep is great for entertainment, but a recipe for disaster results-wise.

The next step now for Wales is developing beyond that kicking game on both sides of the ball. In attack there were encouraging signs in both games, particularly in the second half against France, as the men in red moved through phases at a better tempo, varied the direction of the attack and got danger men in space, a prime example being the Rio Dyer try.

Defensively there was a lot of talk about the weakness of the midfield attack in both games, but for me that largely missed the point. The reason the centres have been exposed in both Rome and Paris is that the opposition have the freedom to produce good, quick ball at will.

For all the flanker strength that Wales have, jackal turnovers were few and far between. With the tight five failing to get through enough tackles it has fallen on the back row to step up in this area, preventing them from concentrating on getting over the ball and at worst slowing the opposition down, and at best winning penalties or turnovers to counter attack from.

The concern for the Welsh will be that with the Six Nations now in the rear view mirror and only three warm-up games before the Rugby World Cup, whether the necessary improvements can be made in time to challenge in the latter rounds of the tournament is somewhat questionable. The only hope is that a long pre-RWC camp can produce some serious results.

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