Maybe it’s the new tackle laws that allow more turnovers at the breakdown, maybe it’s the IRB’s appointment of an Australian CEO (maybe that’s just my natural cynicism shining through) but the days of teams grinding out victories in test matches by kicking penalties and tackling their heart’s out seem to be gone. The last test match played on these shores proved that while having an accurate place kicker is a must in modern International rugby the ability to score tries will more often than not prove to be the deciding factor. Wales lead Australia in Cardiff until Kurtley Beale broke the try scoring dead lock between both sides with the last move of the game snatching a 14-12 victory over their hosts in what had been an ugly battle of a test match. Just a week earlier Scotland had fallen victim to one of the biggest upsets in recent memory against a Tongan side who outscored their host’s 2 tries to 0 in a 21-15 victory and on the 24th of November England dominated their test against South Africa only to lose 16-15 as South Africa’s behemoth back rower Willem Alberts crashed over for the game’s only try.
The new tackle laws should suit Wales and a squad that includes 3 outstanding open side flankers in their captain Sam Warburton, Osprey’s Justin Tipuric and Warburton’s Cardiff Blues team mate Josh Navidi should be ideally placed to provide their monstrous back line with plenty of ball. However having failed to register a single win in their last 7 test matches they need to adapt their tactics to suit the new rules. Traditionally Wales have always been known as one of the better teams with ball in hand but since Warren Gatand’s reign as head coach has began they have become more known for their physicality in defence and pressurising opposition into making mistakes and conceding kickable penalties. Gatland has been Wales’ head coach since 2007 and while it’s difficult to criticise someone who’s presided over 2 Grand Slams and a World Cup semi final the laws have changed even since the last Grand Slam in 2012. Gatland’s involvement with the Lions (and a freak accident) has meant that he has not been able to have his usual influence over the team for many of the last 7 games but the team have been left in the hands of Rob Howley who Gatland is taking on the Lions tour so Gatland clearly feels that Howley is a capable replacement. It’s not just Wales’ coaching staff who will be missing a key component, Dan Lydiate won’t play any part in the first few games of the 6 Nations (and could miss the whole tournament) and Wales will be without 3 first choice lock forwards (Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies and Luke Charteris for most, if not all of the competition), but Andries Pretorius should prove to be a more than capable replacement for Lydiate and set piece play has never been Wales strong point so the forced addition of a second row that could include Ryan Jones and Aaron Shingler would add to the running ability and skill level that Wales will need to show if they are to compete with teams like Ireland and England who will come to dominate slow and forward driven matches.
Decision making will play a key role in Wales 6 Nations success, or lack of. The decision of who will play in the 10 shirt will be crucial and the decision of making of that number 10 will also determine how fruitful their campaign is. Conservative selection has stifled their ability to score tries which is why they have not won a competitive test match since the end of the 2012 6 Nations and if they are to adapt to modern International rugby they should ditch the inconsistent Jamie Roberts at 12 who is selected purely for his defensive capabilities and shuffle the back line to allow the Osprey’s fleet footed winger Eli Walker to bring a touch of magic and try scoring threat to a team that sorely lacks it.