Now that the 2022 July internationals are wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the northern hemisphere nations. Next up, Wales.
Wayne Pivac’s men travelled to South Africa under immense pressure from the media, pundits and fans after losing in the final round of the Six Nations, against Italy in Cardiff.
The general expectation was for Wales to return home with nothing after being whitewashed by the Springboks. However, this was not the case as Pivac’s team became the first Wales side to win a game on South African soil and had a shot at wrapping up the series.
While the series ended 2-1 in favour of the world champions, Wales will head home smiling after making significant strides during the tour and righting the ship to an upward trajectory.
Captain Dan Biggar came into his own as the team leader during this tour, constantly making his presence felt on and off the pitch. There was an extra spring in his step as he inspired his side to an historic feat.
The fly-half was very vocal in and amongst the team huddles and conversations whilst dictating play from number 10. He was a general throughout the tour and one of the critical factors in the group’s development.
The decision to pass on the armband from rugby’s most experienced player, Alun Wyn Jones, to Biggar was well-timed by Pivac as Biggar will be a confident and seasoned captain by the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
A diamond unearthed
Tommy Reffell absolutely burst onto the international scene with three monstrous performances on the back of winning the Premiership with Leicester Tigers.
The flanker showed tremendous work-rate both with and without the ball, scoring his first Test try in the decisive clash in Cape Town. However, it was his work at the breakdown that truly announced his arrival.
Reffell was a menace to the South Africans at the breakdown, showing impressive speed to get over the ball and strong body position to stay over it. The flanker never looked out of place at Test level and exploited any slow support for the ball carrier. In fact, at times, he seemed like a 30-Test player with the level of nous shown at the breakdown.
Having a player who is so adept at the breakdown is a massive asset for any team, and by next year’s World Cup, Reffell could be a force to be reckoned with for Wales for years to come.
Game plan viability and execution
For the most part, Wales executed their game plan very well, particularly in the first two Tests, where Biggar and Kieran Hardy kicked brilliantly. Wales subsequently put pressure on the Springboks through their aerial game.
The third Test was not a bad performance at all, but the rested Springboks line-up simply had too much in the tank. However, Wales can be proud of how well they fronted up physically throughout the tour.
The two teams play a very similar style, utilising hard runners to punch holes in the defensive line while using box kicks to gain territory and compete for 50/50s. This played into Wales’s hands at the time but when Pivac’s men are required to adapt their game plan according to different opposition, do they have the ability to implement variety in their structures effectively?
Pivac needs to integrate structures that can offer his team variety against different opposition if they are to push on for higher honours.
Squad depth concern
Pivac will be concerned with his fly-half depth looking ahead to the World Cup. Biggar is the incumbent, and that will not change, but Wales does have a heavy reliance on their captain. In the event of a Biggar injury, how many viable options are available?
Gareth Anscombe is playing good rugby again and produced the winning kick in the second Test. However, the New Zealand-born pivot is relatively injury prone, making it difficult for Pivac to see him as a secure back-up for Biggar.
Rhys Patchell is a relatively experienced Test player but does not have the playing ability of Anscombe at the moment. There is nothing wrong with the 29-year-old, who is a quality player. However, the question remains whether Patchell can slot into the starting line-up seamlessly if needed and make a telling impact on the game over a sustainable period if required.
Pivac will not be blind to this, and he should be looking to find a secure and sustainable back-up for Biggar in the time remaining before the showpiece event in France next year.
Nevertheless, Wales and Pivac will be pleased with their tour despite losing the series. The team culture evidently grew in South Africa, which filtered through their performances against the world champions.
It is onwards and upwards for a gritty Wales, who may just be primed and ready for a strong showing at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.