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New-look Wales learn harsh Six Nations lessons

Written by 
Published in Rugby
Sunday, 11 February 2024 02:59

In the end it again proved a step too far for Wales' new-look young side. For all the endeavour and shoots of optimism highlighted by head coach Warren Gatland, victory again eluded Wales at Twickenham.

They might be youthful, but this Gatland class of 2024 are quickly learning the harsh realities of international rugby, with Wales now having lost nine of their past 10 Six Nations matches.

In this year's tournament, there have been two defeats from two, by a combined total of only three points, in games against Scotland and England. That will hurt, especially as both were matches Wales could have won.

It might be a new era but the old Twickenham hang-ups remain. This was an eighth successive defeat at England's home against the Red Rose side since 2015.

Wales had lived up to their reputation as slow starters as they conceded 27 points against Scotland in 43 minutes, before battling back to lose by a point.

But Wales bucked the trend at Twickenham, where they led at half-time in this tournament for the first time since 1980.

Yet a 14-5 advantage was overhauled, with Wales scoring no points in the second half and conceding 11. An inexperienced side just lacked the composure to seal victory.

Game management an issue

Wales showed naivety at key times. The visitors had a two-man advantage in the first half with Ollie Chessum and Ethan Roots shown yellow cards, but Wales could not impose themselves.

Wales have been here before under Gatland at Twickenham, with shades of the 2015 World Cup defeat against Australia and the loss to England prior to last year's global tournament.

On this occasion, fly-half Ioan Lloyd replaced the injured Sam Costelow to make his first international start in the fabled Wales number 10 jersey.

Wales are looking to replace both the retired Dan Biggar and unavailable Gareth Anscombe and there are not many options.

Lloyd, 22, is a different sort of fly-half from Biggar, a more attacking option who has played a lot of his senior rugby at full-back. He remains raw and Wales have to be patient with him and Costelow.

Lloyd demonstrated glimpses of his ability including a fizzing, long second-half pass to Cameron Winnett that almost led to a Rio Dyer try and a brilliant first-half attacking kick to touch.

There will be incidents he will look back on with regret and realise how unforgiving life can be in the fly-half role.

Wales had forced a penalty try and were playing against 13 men when Lloyd was caught under his own posts by Maro Itoje straight after the restart. The visitors conceded a scrum and Ben Earl powered over for a try.

"Probably when England are down to 13 men, you don't play in your own 22," said Gatland.

"It's an opportunity to play territory, get the ball down there and squeeze them.

"That's part of the learning process. I'm not going to be critical of individuals, I've been through this before with other teams."

Kicking contest, aerial ability

With limited time against an aggressive England defence, Lloyd tried to make things happen with his kicking game but his searching chips rarely hit the mark.

England fly-half George Ford had his own issues, including controversially having a conversion attempt denied by the onrushing Rio Dyer and Elliot Dee.

Ford stepped up when required with his brilliant 50-22 kick leading to the pressure that resulted in Mason Grady being shown a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on.

Ford slotted over the penalty to give England the lead for the first time after 72 minutes and Wales were chasing a result with only 14 men. That was the game.

Not for the first time in recent matches against England, Wales also lost the aerial contest.

England full-back Freddie Steward has often dominated these exchanges and was given more opportunity to excel.

Set-piece change

England's second-half kicking strategy and set-piece superiority were key factors in the comeback.

Wales conceded just four penalties versus Scotland and remarkably did not concede one in the first half at Twickenham.

The second half proved a different story, though, as Wales struggled in the set-piece after Elliot Dee and Keiron Assiratti were replaced. Hooker Dee had been outstanding to back up his second-half display against Scotland.

Tight-head prop Archie Griffin, 22, was making his Wales debut from the bench after only five games for Bath.

The visiting pack found themselves on the wrong side of the officials at the scrum, while the line-out began to malfunction with Ryan Elias struggling to find his jumpers.

Gatland explained why he made those front-row changes.

"We thought putting Ryan on with Archie would give us some experience along with fresh legs," said Gatland.

"We probably lost a bit of accuracy. I thought Elliot was outstanding and he was great when he came on second half against Scotland last week."

Remarkable Reffell

England number eight Earl was named player of the match but the award could have gone to Wales flanker Tommy Reffell.

England coach Steve Borthwick knows the foraging flanker having worked with him at Leicester. Reffell's trademark turnovers were in evidence and he also demonstrated his attacking abilities, playing a role in Alex Mann's try.

"We know how good he is defensively, but we want him to be comfortable getting the ball in his hands more," said Gatland.

"He came in as a bit more of an option as a running threat. We saw that last week and once more against England. I'm delighted because he's starting to get a nice balance in his game.

"That can take him to the next level. He was outstanding and just keeps going for 80 minutes."

Reffell's unrelenting contribution was matched by that of new Wales captain Dafydd Jenkins, who is growing into his role, while wing Dyer is developing into an international-class wing.

Full-back Winnett, 21, was again assured in his second international appearance and 17th professional game and produced a try-saving tackle on Elliot Daly.

His Cardiff team-mate Mann, 22, had only made just 11 senior appearances before his Wales debut against Scotland. He has now managed two tries in two games after making his first Test start.

Mann typified the gnarly Wales approach that frustrated England for so long, but could not stop the rampaging Earl crossing for his try.

At the other end of the experience spectrum, George North, 31, joined Wales' exclusive club of 50 appearances in the tournament. He joins Stephen Jones, Gethin Jenkins Alun Wyn Jones and Martyn Williams.

In his 119th Wales game, North produced a short series of powerful bursts as he proved Gatland's most effective ball-carrier.

Patience needed with Dublin trip next

For all the positivity, Gatland asked for patience from the Welsh public after the England defeat and he will need it.

Wales won only one game in three of the previous four Six Nations campaigns, with the 2021 title triumph under Wayne Pivac the exception.

This time around, they are still searching for a first win, but Dublin - where Wales go next, on 24 February - is not the ideal place to halt a losing sequence.

Like their experiences at Twickenham, Wales have not won at the Aviva Stadium in this tournament since 2012 and Ireland are a far more daunting prospect than Scotland or England.

If the victory does not come against the defending champions - and not even the most ardent Welsh fan will expect a win in Ireland - it will have to materialise in the final two home games, against France and Italy, which take place in the space of six days in March.

Gatland is adamant Wales will become a good team in the future. In the present their resolve will continue to be sorely tested.

Short-term pain for long-term gain. It has become the mantra for Welsh rugby.

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