Wales can come back stronger
March 5, 2009
Wales' Tom Shanklin and Ryan Jones reflect on defeat to France in Paris © Getty Images
Declan Kidney Danny Care Thierry Dusautoir Imanol Harinordoquy Gavin Henson Martin Johnson Ryan Jones Paul O'Connell Brian O'Driscoll Ronan O'Gara Fulgence Ouedraogo Andy Powell Mathew Tait Martyn Williams Shane Williams
Before it all began I flagged up Friday night in Paris as the one I was worried about for Wales and then changed my mind on some pretty flimsy evidence.
I should have known better - heart ruling head - it never works!
It was wishful thinking to believe Wales had got their bad game out of the system with their below par performance against England. Instead of stepping-up again for France it was another lacklustre display with far too many errors - the better side won on the day. All credit to France - they did go up a gear.
Imanol Harinordoquy's dad was a legend for his sporting feats in the Basque country and when the youngster burst on the scene in 2002 he was hailed as a chip off the old block with his intoxicating mix of athlete and hard man. He soon became a champion of Basque aspirations and was on the way to becoming a national hero before injury led to a complete loss of form. When he was demoted to the 'A' team it seemed as if the Basque dream had ended but now he is back with a vengeance and at 29 is busy making up for lost time.
He met the steel of Andy Powell, Wales's find of the season, with even tougher steel and then took the game to Wales magnificently. It was probably his best ever performance in a French jersey and he inspired his back-row colleagues, Fulgence Ouedrago and Thierry Dusautoir, to mighty contributions as well. That, for me, was where the game was won.
Worryingly for Wales, captain, Ryan Jones was pretty anonymous. He needs to find some bite to go with his work-rate. Suddenly on the back foot because of Harinordoquy and co. Wales contributed to their own downfall by losing their assurance and their patience. It was the most hesitant performance I have seen from them since the Rugby World Cup and, to compound the errors this caused, players who should have known better tried to do too much on their own.
Mike Phillips several times tried to take on the world from a standing start, changed his mind and then had no option but to go again and the Williams boys, Shane and Martyn, were also guilty of trying to win the game on their own instead of working openings. The final straw was when Gavin Henson ignored a three-on-two situation and went for glory himself in the dying moments. It would have been a dream return if he had made it but he was chopped down by Dusautoir and it has to go down as a bad error of judgement.
But this was a wake-up call not a disaster - Wales can still win the Championship and end the season stronger as a team if they learn from the mistakes in Paris.
Ireland are where Wales were at this stage last year - starting to believe that this could be a special season. They have won the Triple Crown three times this century - more than any other nation but they have never really looked in contention for a Grand Slam which they have won only once in their history - in 1948. Now they are the only country still in contention and must be daring to dream even if, officially, they are talking the old 'we're not thinking beyond the next game' cliché.
There was nothing spectacular about the win over England but they were well in control for most of the game and would have been out of sight if Ronan O'Gara had not missed five kicks at goal. That control must have pleased coach, Declan Kidney, no end. He has selected cleverly introducing new blood in the back three and the back-row where it was perhaps getting stale.
But it was the solid play of the front five that set-up this victory. Paul O'Connell is back to his very best and John Hayes - who I honestly thought was past his sell-by date a couple of seasons ago - is playing better than ever as he trundles towards his 100th cap.
Poor old England cannot get anything right. Even Martin Johnson had to admit Danny Care's misdemeanour demanded a yellow card but now that they are out of contention it is more important that he admits he has been too cautious. This is surely the time to go for adventure and youth. They are now playing for pride and that means respect from their own fans who are desperate for a bit of excitement.
It was only when Mathew Tait came on after an hour that the backline had a cutting edge. He soon made the sort of slashing break we seldom see from a man in white and should have put Rick Flutey in for a try. I am becoming more and more convinced that selection is probably the single most important skill for an international manager/coach and if we do not see some bold, positive decisions for the final two matches this season will have been wasted.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and regular contributor to Scrum.com
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt won the tactical battle and set his team on course for a shot at the Grand Slam. Tom Hamilton reports from Dublin
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