It was a bitter pill to swallow, losing a 13th consecutive game to the Wallabies, especially having watched England whitewash them out on their home turf the previous summer. However, we must remember that this was an Australian side that had just defeated the mighty All Blacks; their confidence was understandably high.
It was, I believe, a missed opportunity, however. With arguably the best fullback in the world, Israel Folau, missing from the squad and the Wallabies barely unpacked after travelling halfway around the world; the Australians did not look like the finely honed team I was expecting to see out in the cauldron of the Principality Stadium. They still looked a bit groggy and a little overwhelmed at times.
Gatland had promised a new philosophy with ball in hand, and his selection backed up his statement. Gareth Davies supplanted Rhys Webb, likely for his rapid acceleration and threat in the loose, reforming the 2015 Rugby World Cup partnership with Dan Biggar at fly-half. It was in the centres however that the most notable change could be seen: Wales’ head coach is notorious for selecting behemoths in the midfield, (such as the likes of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, 6ft 4in, 110kg and 6ft 1in 104kg respectively), but opted for a playmaker at inside centre. Probably influenced by his sabbatical as the British and Irish Lions head coach, where Sexton and Farrell combined to great effect to help the touring side to drawn series out in New Zealand, Gatland had chosen Gloucester flyhalf Owen Williams in the midfield.
It was a risky call, making such a drastic change to his playing formula against one of the world’s top sides, but it was also a change that the Welsh supporters had been craving for. With in-form Scarlets winger, Steff Evans, positively on fire for his region, selected on one wing and the counter-attacking genius of Liam Williams on the other touchline, it was indeed a blueprint for some fluid poetry in the backline.
With the addition of Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi to the back row, joining British and Irish Lions hero Taulupe Faletau, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Gatland’s commitment to play an expansive and open the game and move away from the giants of old was something he was taking seriously. The new strategy worked surprisingly well, considering the magnitude of the challenge before them, and many of the youngsters were untested at this level.
Although the 10-12 combination took a little time to synchronise, it was immediately evident that it was fulfilling its duty: the ball was getting to the wingers in a fashion not seen since the 2005 Six Nations Grand Slam campaign.
There was something new and threatening about the Welsh backs that had been missing for a long time, which caught not just the supporters unawares, but the Wallabies players too. Australia’s head coach, Michael Cheika, had previously alluded to the fact that Wales now looked somewhat unpredictable with their latest selection, and he was correct; Wales’ game plan was now veiled behind a completely refreshed structure in the backs. In the past, sides knew how to defend against Wales; seal up the midfield like a vacuum pack and let them run themselves into the ground.
Not so much now. In this autumn series opener, it was Steff Evans who scored Wales’ first try and it was a cracker! Following some fluid hands to release the British and Irish Lions player of the series, Jonathan Davies, it was his namesake Gareth who made the secondary break from the lineout, justifying his selection. It was this next passage of play that really made fans sit up and watch, after all the talk of trying to emulate the Scarlets and get the ball wider, this was the moment where talking became walking. Faletau stepped in at scrumhalf who passed to big Jake Ball, who showed some deft handling to ship the ball on to Owen Williams who in turn got the ball to Biggar. Foxy received the ball next and it was simply a matter of passing the ball along the line like every child does in training. Davies, to Liam Williams, to Halfpenny, to Evans, who then showed both agility and strength to get over the try line, powering through Kurtley Beale.
Try of the Match?
Dissecting that opening try, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that Wales a year ago would not have scored that try. A number eight at the ruck feeding a second row would have resulted in an attempted display of power, trying to batter their way through the defensive line. A safe option. Instead, Ball, indoctrinated by the Scarlets way, showed great vision in giving the ball to his inside centre, Owen Williams; now with no disrespect to the man mountain that is Jamie Roberts, had it been him receiving the ball in that position, would he had had the same time on the ball as Williams had? In all likelihood, that phase would’ve ended with a ruck in the midfield… the benefit of having a second playmaker in the team now becomes evident. Williams distributes the ball wide to Biggar, who has the capability to spin the ball with speed and accuracy to get outside Australia’s scrambling defence, ultimately leading to the try. In six seconds, the ball passed through eight pairs of hands.
Work in progress
Of course, it wasn’t all dazzling hands and fancy footwork, there were definite indicators of unfamiliarity and a few gears that needed oiling. Three uncharacteristic fumbles from Faletau, more than he’s had in his entire playing career it seems, and some costly mistakes by the newly christened winger, Evans. Despite Evans’ glittering start for Wales, it was one small mistake that allowed Australia to score a crucial third try, taking the wind out of Wales’ proverbial sails just as they were beginning to look a real threat.
The relationship between Biggar and Williams clearly needs some time to blossom too, with the Ospreys flyhalf still seeming to play with the expectation of a battering ram on his outside shoulder instead of relying on Williams to act as a second distributor.
It was Wales’ inability to handle the restart that ultimately cost them in the end, however, after initially securing the ball, the boys in red ended up handing possession over soon after. They were mistakes that piled the pressure right back onto the hosts after clawing back crucial points and stalled any build in momentum.
All in all, it was what I would consider an acceptable loss. It was by no means a thrashing and the game could easily have swung in Wales’ favour. It’s also worth mentioning that there was some young blood in that squad, who more than held their own against the Aussies. Leon Brown, Josh Navidi, Owen Watkin, Steff Evans and Hallam Amos all stood out as potential stalwarts come the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Taking it Lion down
The worst result of that encounter was the agonising, literally last-minute injury to Jonathan Davies. The centre plays such a key role in every team he plays in that the loss will bear a significant change to the dynamic of Wales’ back line for the remaining fixtures. Everyone is aware of Foxy’s attacking prowess, his deceptive speed, formidable strength, his infamous handoff, slick distribution skills and a clever left boot; it is in my opinion, however, his defensive work that is far more valuable. Davies has an uncanny ability to make some of the best centres in the world look no better than average in attack; his positioning, strength in the tackle, awareness and all-around reading of the game means that the opposition midfield has an arduous task of breaking the gain line. He will be sorely missed in the red of Wales and even more so in the Scarlet jersey in the west. Though this does present an opportunity for the likes of Owen Watkin to impress and for Scott Williams to prove a somewhat sore point to the coaching team.