Rygbi: Australia must learn Welsh lessons
March 18, 2013
Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric are front-runners for berths in the British & Irish Lions backrow © Getty Images
The south mocks the north ... and vice versa. But Australian Super Rugby provinces can learn valuable lessons in how to get themselves back on track by analysing how Wales became unexpected Six Nations victors. Wales succeeded through sheer persistence; a refusal to let outside influences get to them; having a strong skill set; playing a smart, tight passing game; winning the big moments; and being so, well, Welsh.
As countless Australian teams have discovered when playing Wales at Millennium Stadium, the whole Cardiff experience can get to you. Cardiff is world rugby's premier venue, with the whole town focused on the code on game day. Not surprising, really, considering the stadium is slap bang in the middle of the city. For those Australians who haven't been there, it is like having the Olympic Stadium situated in the middle of Sydney's Martin Place.
Only New Zealanders compare with the Welsh in their zeal for the game. And for the really big moments, Wales know how to use the Millennium Stadium experience to their advantage: the Welsh choir singing, the choreographed fireworks; the pre-match fervour is so rousing, so nationalistic, that it can easily distract the nervous visitors - as England were on the weekend. Really, England had little hope. Wales were in familiar surroundings, surrounded by friendly faces, with momentum building, and they reserved their best until last.
Wales smashed England in the Six Nations-deciding Test (video available only in Oceania)
And with it was the final step in an extraordinary transformation.
Millennium Stadium, in the first round of the Six Nations, didn't provide them with a win. Instead, at half time against Ireland, the silence of their home crowd sent home a different message. The Welsh players trudged into the dressing room trailing by 20 points (23-3) and wondering if their long losing streak would ever end. There were signs of some sort of Welsh revival in the second half, as Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert found the line to make the score a bit more respectable; they lost by eight points.
They found their feet on the road - winning in Paris, Rome and Edinburgh - before returning home and getting the selections right by playing the not-so-long-ago-out-of-touch Sam Warburton on the blindside of the scrum, to accompany Toby Faletau and Justin Tipuric in a dynamic back row that eclipsed England.
The victory led to Six Nations victory photos, but also ensured the first British & Irish Lions Test team to play Australia will have more of a Welsh than an English tinge. Before this match, one was anticipating about six or seven England players and four Welshmen in the starting Lions XV. Now it looks more like seven or eight Welshmen (Halfpenny, George North, Cuthbert, Mike Phillips, Faletau, Tipuric, Warburton and Adam Jones) and only a few from England.
And as the Australian provincial teams looked on, they could take so much from how the Welsh overcame adversity to achieve success. Like New South Wales Waratahs and Melbourne Rebels this season, the Welsh appeared so out of it early on. But they didn't go all radical. They instead worked away at what they perceived as their strengths: up-front vigour, midfield consistency rather than flair, and the reliability of Halfpenny; it was hardly invigorating, but it worked.
George North's dad captured his own share of the headlines in Paris (video available only in Oceania)
The Rebels have the rock stars but lack the solid base. They are all flair without too much fire. It is high time they just calmed down, and worked out exactly what their game plan is. That would help.
As for the Waratahs, it might be time to actually work on their basic skills. In the final rounds of the Six Nations, Wales hardly made a mistake. Handling errors were limited. The Waratahs want to play a more expansive style, to the relief of their long exasperated fan base, but they haven't got the skills to pull it off. Several high-profile players struggle to catch, pass or kick a football; that is an enormous handicap.
The Waratahs suffered another depressing loss, against the Cheetahs (video available only in Australia)
The Waratahs have also made the cardinal mistake of pushing players too early.
Fullback/winger Ben Volavola received enormous wraps from the local media before playing his first Super Rugby game. But it was soon obvious in his opening game that his kicking style was too poor, his defensive strategy too flawed, for him not to be found out. Volavola was brutally exposed, and it was no surprise that he quickly disappeared from the starting XV.
Yet there are better-known names at the province who are similarly vulnerable, struggling at times to even pass from left to right. The media was sympathetic towards the Waratahs after their embarrassing loss to the Cheetahs. But it will be interesting to see how long this "we're with you" attitude goes on for if the team continues to struggle in the basics of the game.
As for basic skills, Wales are the masters. Hint. Hint.
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