Wales are being touted as a team with the conviction to go all the way in Tokyo later this year. This weekend they come up against their old nemesis – England, in Cardiff the Dragons lair, 11 Test matches unbeaten versus England’s newly rediscovered confidence and credentials.
What will be of most significance to coaches Jones and Gatland is how their players handle their respective moments of pressure, given this is a World Cup year, Saturdays Test match result could paint a significant picture of whether each team are contenders or pretenders to the crown.
Warren Gatland has overseen Wales’s development over the past 12 seasons, an incredible achievement in longevity given the cruel results driven nature of professional sport for coaches. In that time Gatland has got Wales to a World Cup semifinal, won three 6 Nations titles and two grand slams, he has been criticized in the latter years as being an exponent of ‘Warren-ball.’ A tactic perhaps crudely associated and criticized by having big forwards or backline players constantly running channel ball back at their opponents and continuing the same direction and pattern. It is very low risk and does have its benefits (creating space on the outside channels when done correctly), but at its core it is simplistic and you need a bit more guile in your tactics to win a World Cup.
Whilst Wales have evolved their playing style and philosophy to be slightly more expansive, their lack of major Test match wins points to them still not having a real belief that they can beat the very best the world has to offer in consecutive weeks. Recent wins against a continually fractious Australia and the inconsistent Springboks is commendable, but must be seen in the greater context of the overall ‘health’ of the game in South Africa and particularly Australia as opposed to Wales.
11 test matches unbeaten is not a record to be sniffed at, however upon closer inspection you see three scalps missing from their list of conquests. Namely the All Blacks, England and to an extent Ireland, Wales do have a decent record against the Irish of late with two wins, one draw and a loss. But they haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 1953 and England in the last four years, Wales will show their title credentials if they upset England this weekend, and take with them an air of complete confidence come Tokyo later this year. If not, it will just indicate that yes Wales on their day can throw up a ‘surprise’ result but don’t have the stomach or steel to go all the way.
The English have put in two dominant displays to show their World Cup credentials for all to see, Eddie Jones is now seen as the resurgent savior after a challenging last season whereby his job tenure was routinely called into question. England have found their confidence and playing the brand of rugby very similar to ‘Warren-ball’, with Manu Tuilagi finally fit, Jones’ team has real strike power across the field to get over the advantage line when defenses are up and rushing.
Jones has won two 6 Nations titles, a three nil series whitewash over Australia, a grand slam and an unbeaten run equaling the All Blacks on 18 wins in his first two seasons, the last 18 months of his tenure have been his most difficult, littered with regular losses and players out due to injury. A dubious call robbed England of a chance to beat the All Blacks last season, however similar calls are going to come at a Rugby World Cup and how a team deals with it and those critical moments of pressure could be the difference between packing your bags and staying another week.
England have rediscovered their mojo and what makes them such a difficult rugby team to play against, there is real belief in the playing group about how they want to play and the conviction they have delivering their game plan. John Mitchell has fixed up the English defensive effort and now use it as a means to ‘attack’ when defending.
The Roses couldn’t have asked for a better start to their World Cup season and on Saturday they’ll have an even greater understanding of their playing style and most crucial for any potential World Cup winner, how they handle pressure in big moments as a team.
Written by Brandon Going