With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.
We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in Part 5 where we take a look at how Wales fared.
Wales – 7/10
It’s been a good year for Wales make no mistake, and with them sitting at third place in the World Rankings – why have we only given them a 7/10 you may ask? Yes it has been an outstanding season for Wales, but their place on the world rankings table is likely to change fairly quickly once the Rugby Championship gets underway next weekend, as Australia and South Africa are likely to climb quickly on the global pecking order. There have been some outstanding performances by Wales this season, but look at the maths and then you may understand how we have had to temper Wales place on the world rankings with a dose of reality. Yes they only lost four Tests this past season, but of the eight they won, four of those matches were by less than seven points. The win against Georgia, at the beginning of the season was also far from convincing. Lastly their summer tour was against two sides deep in the process of transition – not that that takes away from three excellent Welsh wins, made more impressive by the fact that they were delivered by what was essentially a developmental squad. In short, it has been a year in which Wales have learnt a great deal about the depth they have at their disposal. While the results may not have been as convincing at times as some may have liked, Wales have used this season to lay some excellent ground work for the World Cup in Japan next year. On that basis we feel that Wales have had a very good year and should feel exceptionally confident going into 2019.
Wales got their season off to a blistering start in the November Internationals against Australia. While they may have lost the game, they played some outstanding attacking rugby but at times they looked fragile defensively. It was a fast and very physical game, with the Welsh forward pack, particularly the loose forwards Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi putting in a huge shift. However, the pace at which Wales played meant that at times they were left wrongfooted in defence. Australia were clinical at spotting the gaps and making Wales pay for them. Furthermore, in the exuberance Wales fluffed a few key chances, while their goalkicking also left them bereft of some key points. Still it was an impressive display that hinted at some great performances to come from Wales as the season unfolded.
Although they won their next match against Georgia, much of the optimism surrounding their performance against Australia quickly evaporated. It was a scrappy and at times cynical effort from Wales, and they were lucky to win a match that was from a spectator point of view instantly forgettable. Georgia matched them physically and pushed them to the limit and were unlucky to lose. They then went on to face New Zealand, and despite having the lion’s share of possession and territory they were able to do a lot less with it than the All Blacks. New Zealand were simply better at turning what little opportunity they had into points on the board. Although Wales played some brilliant rugby in the second half and scored some outstanding tries, their finishing still left much to be desired. As a result, despite a solid effort they still found themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard at the final whistle by 15 points.
Wales would finish the November Test window by putting on another superb display of high-speed attacking rugby in the first half against South Africa. However, alarm bells would start ringing again as they failed to maintain the momentum, allowing the Springboks right back into the match towards the end of the first half and ultimately for the rest of the match. Welsh fans breathed a sigh of relief as Leigh Halfpenny stroked a penalty over the posts with ten minutes to go, and put Wales back into a two point lead which they would maintain till the final whistle. Once again an impressive start was let down by a less than convincing finish despite the win.
Wales started their Six Nations campaign against Scotland by laying down a marker that they would be a force to be reckoned with. Once again they got off to a remarkably fast start which clearly unhinged a Scottish side renown for playing an equally quick brand of rugby. Wales ran out resounding winners in what was their best all round performance of the year, and one which they were able to maintain for the full eighty minutes. Wales then travelled to Twickenham where they took on England in a match they were desperately unlucky to lose, made worse by not being awarded a try which could have clearly swung the match in their favor. England were distinctly average for much of the match, though once again Wales failed to capitalise on some golden opportunities that went begging. Perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of the Welsh performance was a bizarre obsession with a kicking game in the opening stages of the game that was clearly not working for them. The minute they stopped kicking the ball away, England started to look vulnerable. How different the result might have been had they stuck with this approach from the outset.
Wales then made the journey to Dublin to take on an Irish side that was building some impressive momentum that would take them all the way to a Grand Slam. What we were privileged to witness was one of the best games of the tournament as both sides went at each other hammer and tongs. Fast and physical for the full eighty minutes, Wales were ultimately unable to contain Ireland who managed to exert increasing control over the match as it wore on. Wales got themselves back into the match with the final quarter to go, but once again Ireland were able to put a stranglehold on proceedings despite sustained Welsh pressure and it was Ireland who stole the show at the end with a brilliant intercept try.
Wales returned home, to thump Italy and then in a scrappy and difficult encounter, struggled to get past a resilient France, winning the match by one point. The French dominated possession in the second half, but a resolute Welsh defence held firm. Luckily for Wales, France didn’t bring their kicking boots with them and as a result Wales would squeak the match by the slimmest of margins.
Wales would end their season taking a developmental squad full of new caps on a three Test tour of the Americas. They got proceedings underway in an exhibition match in Washington, DC against South Africa. It was South Africa’s first game under new Coach Rassie Erasmus, ahead of a three Test series at home to England. Both sides were highly experimental but Wales can feel well pleased with the way Coach Warren Gatland’s new charges stood up to the challenge. It was a dire match at first, but from the 20 minute mark, the game picked up its tempo and Wales got into their high-speed attack mode scoring two quick tries. However, as we saw all year, at times they struggle to keep that momentum for the full eighty minutes. South Africa came storming back into the match in the second half and the contest went to the wire, with Wales making a superb charge down on a South African kick deep in the Springbok 22 and scoring a try to seal the match in their favor 24-22.
Wales then headed to Argentina for a two Test series and Gatland’s young charges excelled themselves. Admittedly Argentina were poor and lacked focus, but there is no denying that Wales completely outplayed the South Americans in a master class display from an impressive crop of less experienced Welsh players. Wales boarded the plane for the long flight home knowing that they head into the coming season and preparations for Japan with some serious depth. Depth that is likely to get better with increased exposure in the year ahead.
Our only concern with Wales is consistency, particularly in terms of lasting a full eighty minutes. They are playing a vastly expanded game compared to years gone by and it seems to suit them, even if defensively they have been found wanting at times. Fast and powerful with some outstanding loose forwards, Wales look exceptionally dangerous providing they can finish off the opportunities they are creating. In Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler, Wales have one of the best and most dangerous back row partnerships in International Rugby right now. Fix the consistency, improve the defence and cut down on the errors and Wales are more than capable of getting to the final four in Japan next year. Whatever happens they are an exciting side and we look forward to watching them build on the momentum of a season which reflects a job well done by the players and coaching staff.
Match of the year – Wales vs Scotland – Cardiff – February 3rd – Wales 34/Scotland 7
Wales completely outplayed a highly vaunted Scottish side in their Six Nations opener. Unfortunately they were unable to maintain this level of intensity and efficiency for the remainder of the tournament, but it showcased the skill set that Wales now have, especially with this looser and more open style of game they seem to have adopted. When they get it right the rest of the world will be more than just a little anxious about facing them.
Player of the year – Josh Navidi
Tough call here, as Navidi’s back row partner Aaron Shingler also stood out all season. However, it was Navidi’s powerful runs throughout the year that really caught our eye starting with Wales’ opening Test against Australia. Perhaps more than any other player Navidi epitomised the speed and power which this new look Welsh side seem to now thrive on. It was Navidi’s work rate in the loose and his explosive breaks that set up so many of Wales’ attacks through their backs this season.
Player to watch in 2019 – James Davies
While not exactly a youngster, at the age of 27, the flanker really stood out on Wales’ summer tour of the Americas, proving that Wales have some genuine depth in the back row. Expect to see more of the energetic blindside causing havoc in the midfield in 2019.
We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Wales’ best match of the year in our opinion. Their Six Nations opener against Scotland laid down a real marker of Welsh intent, as well as a showing a more polished and expansive style of play perfected from the November Internationals. Although they may have struggled to maintain it throughout the tournament, they still managed to finish second on the table, and on tour in the Americas in June it was very much on display with a crop of new talent. If Wales can make this their modus operandi throughout 2019, they will be a force to be reckoned with and well prepared for the global showdown in Japan.
Up next – we conclude the series with Ireland!