Absence of ball carriers exposes weakness in Wales squad
Manner of victory over South Africa suggests Welsh will tackle Six Nations unburdened by expectation
Hadleigh Parkes of Wales stretches clear of South Africa’s Andries Coetzee to score his side’s third try. Photograph: Getty Images
Relief was quickly followed by reality for Wales. Victory against a side that could only be identified as South Africa by the colour of the jerseys completed a mediocre year on a high and their first match in 2018 here against Scotland promises to be a lot more taxing.
It took Wales 93 years to work out a way of beating the Springboks and in that long barren run, together with the 15 years that followed, it would only have been rarely said that Scotland posed more of a threat. South Africa were so shambolic in defence that the hosts were able to park the running rugby they have been attempting to refine this year and give their kicking game a service.
Wales were 14 points up in seven minutes and 21-3 ahead just before the interval but they ended up hanging on to record their third victory against South Africa in Cardiff in as many years. Their three tries came from kicks, two from Dan Biggar and one by his chargedown of Andries Coetzee’s laboured clearance, although they made little impression with ball in hand.
They were without 10 first-team regulars and lost Biggar early in the second half with concussion, but while they look to broaden their outlook they are having to run from behind the gainline in phase play, lacking ball-carriers with impact at forward as well as inside-centre. They are a threat from set-pieces but, with their scrum in disarray against South Africa and attacking lineouts rare because they were awarded only three penalties, they lacked the means to build on their lead.
They have players to return for the Six Nations such as Liam Williams, George North and Justin Tipuric, yet it is the lack of carrying options that will tax head coach Warren Gatland. He used 38 players in the four autumn Tests, needing to build depth with a number of players who have served him manfully this decade showing signs of wear and tear.
It was only a few autumns ago that Gatland talked about Wales becoming a fixture in the top four of the world rankings. They started the weekend in eighth, some way behind New Zealand, England and Ireland, and they will go into the Six Nations unburdened by expectation.
Gatland said that he was happy other teams were being talked up, but so did Rob Howley in his capacity as interim head coach at the start of the year and the team finished one off the bottom. Wales may have opted for a playmaker at 12, but the combination of Biggar and Owen Williams is not as complementary as that of George Ford and Owen Farrell for England or Johnny Sexton and Farrell for the British & Irish Lions in the summer.
The lack of carriers means the speed of delivery at the breakdown is an issue, an area the South Africa hooker Malcolm Marx sabotaged on Saturday. If the question was, why Wales did not build on their healthy lead?, the answer lays in how their three tries were scored: they came from a cross-kick, a grubber and a chargedown and even Italy in the Six Nations should be more defensively aware than South Africa were in the opening 30 minutes.
Wales certainly have spirit and, in the forwards Alun Wyn Jones and Taulupe Faletau, possess two players who have not been worn down by the physical demands imposed on them over the years. They were the difference between winning and losing, driving the team in the crucial final 10 minutes, but at full-back Leigh Halfpenny is struggling to find the thrust his side need in the position.
Gatland talked later about the need to mix and match and not rely on one style of play, but Wales remain most comfortable when reading from a script. They need a few ad-libbers in an international game that is becoming increasingly hectic and the coach, in his final two years in charge, now faces his most challenging period.
South Africa’s next match is against England in the summer by which time they could be under new management. A meeting of SA Rugby on December 13th will consider Allister Coetzee’s future as head coach after a difficult two years at the helm. He has conducted himself with dignity and put a plan in place where there was chaos, but he has had to contend with problems that are the province of others.
Wales and South Africa are two powers of the game with proud histories who are down the rankings largely because of domestic problems induced by professionalism. Wales have punched above their weight under Gatland, but a top-down approach will not do for either nation, as the weekend showed.