By Rob Cole
Let’s face it, if you can beat the Springboks with a makeshift front and back row, new centre pairing and a side that is missing six British & Irish Lions, things can’t be too bad!
For some of us who waited more than half our lives for a single win over South Africa, we are now basking in a golden era of three on the bounce at home. So let’s not be mealy-mouthed about it, however tense it was at the end, and take the win and move on.
Winning was important given that every other home nation had taken a southern hemisphere scalp last month and it looks as though the 2018 Six Nations is going to be one of the most competitive of all-time. So what did we learn over the four games this autumn?
Of all the things the Under Armour Series revealed it is that once again the Welsh team gets better and better the longer it stays together. This year more players than ever before have been exposed to the Warren Gatland regime and that can only be good moving forward.
We were all eagerly waiting for Steff Evans to carry his Scarlets form onto the international stage and lead the rest of the world a merry dance, but that didn’t happen. He learned there are quicker, bigger and stronger players than him around, but he never took a backward step.
Instead of being an instant world beater, Evans is now a project international. He will have learned more in the last month than anyone and will only get better when he returns for the Six Nations.
By then George North should be fit to return and it looks as though Hallam Amos will be his wing partner. When his confidence is high, and he plays regularly at this intensity and pace, he looks a very good player.
The midfield looked like being a bit of a bugger’s muddle for the whole month and, in the end, Gatland had to utilise five different centres. Owen Williams shone, Scott Williams proved a point with his two tries, Jonathan Davies ruled himself out for the rest of the season and Hadleigh Parkes exploded onto the scene with two tries on his debut.
Without Davies there is no major cutting edge, but the new style that the players brought to the four games shows they are all more comfortable on the ball these days and so maybe the threat can come from more than one person.
At least Dan Biggar is now over the 60 cap mark, which means he will be eligble to play next season when he moves to Northampton Saints, but Rhys Webbe’s absence will be a huge loss. Aled Davies showed he has the capability to challenge Scarlets’ clubmate Gareth Davies, but both are well behind Webbe in the pecking order.
Who knows what the pack will look like when the Welsh side takes the field against hr Scots in two months’ time. There are so many injuries, but there are no many more candidates. Let’s face it, Josh Navidi is now a real candidate and Aaron Shingler has proved that he can get down and dirty with the rest of the forwards in the close-quarter stuff, rather than rely on the show-pony stuff in the wide channels to earn his merit marks.
And Cory Hill is turning into a bit of a leader in the second row. Maybe there are bits of ‘Captain Fantastic’ alongside him, Alun Wyn Jones, rubbing off on him, or perhaps it is just the role he has taken on at the Dragons that is having a positive impact on him. Whatever it is, he can fill the gap created by Jake Ball’s horrific shoulder injury in the New Year.
It has been nice to see so many younger players getting a chance to face some of the best teams in the world this month and Elliot Dee, Leon Brown, Seb Davies, Owen Watkin and Adam Beard can all now feel a part of the elite group that will move forward to the 2019 World Cup campaign. Nicky Smith and Kristian Dacey have picked up starting experience and the fact that 13 players have been blooded this year has to be a huge positive.
With two tries in the bag in the opening quarter, both created by wonderful kicks by Dan Biggar and terrific chases, it looked as though Wales were going to run rugged a very nervous and shaky looking Springbok side. That didn’t happen, but was it reasonable to expect that it any case?
The dominance in the opening quarter was good to see, as was the application of the new style, but the drop off in intensity, and more than a few tackles, in the second half was a concern. But they found a way to hit back and regain the lead, pulled to victory by the sheer will and power of the magnificent Alun Wyn Jones.
That clash with the ‘high on the Hogg’ Scottish side is going to be a real test with which to open the Six Nations, but there is nothing to suggest Wales cannot put together a good enough team to win that game. If Sam Warburton, Ross Moriarty, George North, Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies and Ken Owens aren’t fit, then Gatland now knows he has a number of more than capable candidates to fill in.
It hasn’t been a vintage autumn for Wales, but it has been an interesting one. You feel as though a significant building block has been put in place towards 2019, although there are still a few deficiencies to be ironed out.
The Scots showed against the Wallabies they have an explosive power with the ball in hand that Wales can’t currently match. There is a definite lack of pace in the side which needs to be looked at ahead as a matter of urgency ahead of 2019.
Having the courage and conviction to stick with the new style of play is the big thing moving into the 2018 Six Nations – and maybe adding a some other voices to the coaching group to encourage a further enhancement of the skills needed to play that way. They are playing for high stakes in Japan in 18 months time, so they must examine every possible way to get the best out of a growing band of very capable players.