BBC BLOGS - BBC Sport: Tom Fordyce
« Previous | Main | Next »

Getting the recipe right

Post categories:

Tom Fordyce | 09:27 GMT, Monday, 9 February 2009

"Bring on England!" beamed Wales centre and man-of-the-match Jamie Roberts after the 26-13 dismissal of Scotland, and you could imagine the beleaguered Martin Johnson covering his cauliflower ears as he heard the words.

On an Edinburgh afternoon so cold the shivers froze on your timbers, the manner and style of Wales' win warmed their supporters' cockles as effectively as a double glug on a hip-flask.

Where a day earlier England had served up a Six Nations hors d'oeuvre that was as unedifying as it was unappetising, Wales produced a main course that managed to leave you both satisfied and ready for more.

The fact that England out-scored Wales five tries to four was nothing but a garnish. Where England had dithered, Wales were decisive. Where Johnson's men were slow of thought and slower of action, Wales were fast - to the breakdown, onto the pass, to spot the gaps that opened in the battered Scottish defence.

The thought of Saturday's England meeting Sunday's Wales in Cardiff next weekend is enough to put an England fan off his food all week.

Former England coach Clive Woodward was famously fond of Brentesque business sayings. One of his favourites went something like this: you can't improve anything 100%, but you can improve 100 things by one per cent.

Watching the opening weekend of the 2009 Six Nations, you could sort of understand what he was saying.

Wales didn't reinvent the way anyone plays rugby; they simply did almost all of the small things right. England, Scotland and Italy did not.

The Welsh scrum was rock-solid, enough to have coach Warren Gatland purring in his post-match press conference. The support play, particularly from Alun Wyn Jones, was magnificent - a product of the brutal conditioning work inflicted on his charges by Shaun Edwards. And the backs almost always crossed the gain line.

Tom Shanklin scores for Wales

If you wanted to be picky, the throwing at the line-out was sometimes a touch off. And if the place-kicking was off-key, Scotland should be grateful for small mercies. In last year's tournament, Wales didn't miss a kick - penalty or conversion - until their fourth match. If that had been the case this time, Scotland could have found themselves on the end of a spanking.

For Wales, the game was sewn up in the five minutes around half-time.

After the two early tries, a Chris Paterson penalty had made it 3-13 and finally woken up the home crowd. Scotland had a scrum 10 metres out.

It should have been at least 6-13, and could have even been 10-13. Instead, the Welsh forwards shoved the denuded Scottish pack off the ball. Andy Powell broke free, Stephen Jones kicked the ball deep into Scottish territory, and from the resulting breakdown, Wales won a penalty to go 16-3 ahead at the break.

From the second half kick-off, Scotland dallied. Roberts smashed a huge hole in the defence, the ball was spun wide and Leigh Halfpenny dived over in the corner. 21-3, game over.

Roberts' display summed up Wales' approach. A few years ago, the loss of Gavin Henson and skipper Ryan Jones would have destroyed the red army. Now, they have strength in depth around the park, to the extent that a man who only made his international debut as a substitute in the corresponding fixture last season was the best player on display.

"The lines he runs are pretty special" said backs coach Rob Howley admiringly afterwards, not getting round to also mentioning his wrecking-ball strength and car-crusher tackling.

It was the usual dispiriting fare from Scotland. We've been here before - bullish pre-championship predictions, talk of a long overdue revival.

Once again, there was little of sustenance to back it up, not until the game had disappeared out of sight.

"I'm bitterly disappointed," admitted coach Frank Hadden. "We were too passive. We were out-muscled."

His scrum-half Mike Blair never stood a chance. In the much-anticipated head-to-head with Mike Phillips, Lions selectors watching on, the Scot spent his time fighting fires behind a pack going backwards. Phillips, by contrast, had all the time and ball he needed to set the ravenous Welsh backs free.

The loss of stellar forwards Euan Murray and Nathan Hines was undoubtedly a major blow. Then again, Wales were without their skipper and centre talisman.

Hadden's decision to leave Paterson out of his starting XV didn't, in the event, turn out to be a Mauro, as we might forever now call selectorial shockers after the Bergamasco balls-up. Injury meant Scotland's record points-kicker was soon on the pitch, and ironically he produced some of the best running moments Scotland had.

Scotland's Chris Paterson

Some of his other decisions didn't work out quite so smoothly. Hadden claimed to be "delighted that the guys coming off the bench made the impact we thought they would." Others would ask why Max Evans wasn't on the park from the off, with his brother Thom at the very least smouldering on the bench.

The sobering news for the rest of Wales's opponents is that Gatland and his team see considerable room for improvement.

"I told the players that it's not about us defending the Six Nations, it's about us challenging for it," said the coach afterwards.

Martyn Williams told us how quiet the dressing-room was after the foot came off the gas in the last 20 minutes - "a little flat, to be honest with you". Lee Byrne, smelling-salts still in his nostrils, concurred. "It's not all good," he said, soberly.

The Welsh fans streaming back to the snowy west didn't quite agree. The torturous journeys many had endured getting to the match had been made worthwhile.

Watching the red jerseys rampage across Murrayfield stirred the soul, just as Saturday's game in Dublin had.

Even in defeat, France played with verve and dash; in victory, Ireland played with passion and power - but both matches also had the effect of highlighting just what a meal England and Italy made of the opener.

England might complain that the cupboard is bare, that there are no world-beaters to bring in. Then again, good chefs make the most of the ingredients at their disposal.

18 months ago, Byrne couldn't even get in the Welsh squad for the World Cup. Under Gatland and Edwards, he's been transformed into the best full-back in world rugby.

On the evidence of the first round of matches, Wales and Ireland, and to a lesser extent France, are the only sides to have the recipe right. The other three nations might be left fighting for the scraps.


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.