Wales grind their way to unconvincing win over Georgia
Minnows dominate second half in Cardiff after Warren Gatland makes 14 changes
Hallam Amos scores Wales’ try against Georgia. Photograph: David Davies/PA
Wales huffed and puffed their way to an unconvincing 13-6 victory over Six Nations wannabes Georgia after being pushed to the limit.
Head coach Warren Gatland made 14 changes to face the world’s 12th-ranked team, and it showed signs of backfiring spectacularly during a second half that Georgia dominated at the Principality Stadium.
Wales ultimately prevailed through wing Hallam Amos’ try, plus two penalties and a conversion from fly-half Rhys Priestland, who was easily their best player, despite finishing with 14 payers after prop Tomas Francis was sin-binned.
It meant a contentious finale as uncontested scrums were ruled, so Georgia opted to keep possession alive before running out of time.
But it made uncomfortable watching for home supporters as Georgia threatened an upset that would have been Test rugby’s biggest since Japan beat South Africa in the 2015 World Cup.
Georgia’s powerful pack made its presence felt at scrum time, and two Soso Matiashvili penalties were perhaps scant reward as they looked to keep the pressure on Six Nations bosses in their attempt to join European international rugby’s elite.
Wales’ combination of experienced backs and Test match rookies up-front faded badly following a bright start, although it will be all-change again in seven days’ time when world champions New Zealand come calling.
Wales, under Gatland, have consistently struggled to beat lower-ranked teams during the autumn Tests, and so it proved again, with Georgia giving them plenty of uneasy moments.
Only full-back Liam Williams was retained in the starting line-up, with four players making their first Test starts, but Georgia were unchanged following a 54-22 victory over Canada last weekend as head coach Milton Haig targeted a Tier One scalp.
Wales were keen to move a heavyweight Georgia pack around, and they started with considerable intent, monopolising possession and going close to a try inside five minutes following scrum-half Rhys Webb’s razor-sharp break that created a chance for number eight Seb Davies before Georgia frantically cleared the danger.
Priestland put Wales ahead through an eighth-minute penalty, and it would have been a bigger lead shortly afterwards had Georgia scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze not made a try-saving tackle on wing Alex Cuthbert.
Georgia could not get into the contest, making mistakes as Wales closed down their space, and the home side struck after 19 minutes when Priestland was twice involved in a well-worked move that ended with an unmarked Amos touching down.
Priestland, displaying assurance and confidence in abundance, added the conversion for a 10-0 lead, before Amos was denied a second try following more sublime Welsh ambition when referee Mathieu Raynal ruled a knock-on in a ruck after before Wales counter-attacked.
And Georgia capitalised on the escape as Matiashvili opened their account through an angled penalty 11 minutes before half-time, which was a prelude to an extended spell of pressure as half-time approached.
Wales should have been comfortably clear on the scoreboard, yet they could not regain the attacking initiative and had to be content with a seven-point interval advantage.
Flanker Sam Cross did not appear for the second period — it looked as though he took a blow to his arm just before half-time — and was replaced by Cardiff Blues’ Josh Navidi.
Of far greater concern for Wales, though, was an increasingly creaking scrum, and Matiashvili kicked a second penalty after tighthead prop Leon Brown infringed as Georgia began to assert set-piece dominance.
Gatland then changed both props, sending on Wyn Jones and Francis, while Dan Biggar took over from Williams, who was limping just before he departed, as Wales looked to encourage an increasingly nervous crowd.
A second Priestland penalty put Wales seven points in front, yet Georgia kept pummelling away, and the hosts had to survive a series of scrums close to their line before claiming a win that will not live long in the memory.