Wales in pursuit of balance
March 2, 2011
Alun-Wyn Jones believes that Wales are heading in the right direction © Getty Images
Wales have bagged two wins in their last two Six Nations starts and a tie against their perennial rivals Ireland looms large on the horizon, but a complete performance, one to make the hairs stand on end, continues to elude Warren Gatland's men.
Last weekend's victory over Italy in Rome contained arguably the best try of this year's Championship, to flanker Sam Warburton, and a second titanic defensive effort in as many weeks, but an erratic kicking game and fired-up home side ensured that Welsh hopes of a blowout victory were quickly wiped from the day's running order.
For most, it's too early to talk of a revival and given the fireworks seen sporadically at Twickenham in recent months, Wales' tendency to put boot to ball has seen them slip away from the limelight in terms of being the north's entertainers.
What they are is solid. Their defence has regained the bite that characterised the early months of Shaun Edwards' tenure. Wales do not get hammered anymore, but their grit appears to have come at the expense of flair, that most important of traits.
Ospreys lock Alun-Wyn Jones, who has formed a well-balanced second-row partnership with the more robust Bradley Davies since last year's tournament, is also in pursuit of balance between attack and defence and the 26-year-old believes that change is around the corner.
"Our defence is back where it should be and has been," he said. "As long as we get the balance right and patience in our attack we're showing glimpses of a strong attacking side. We've got willingness to play with the ball, sometimes we try and play a bit too much, but we showed some counter-attacking flair at the weekend.
"Sam Warburton scored a good try created by the backs and there was a bit of brilliant play from Shane and Byrney and unfortunately they were called back by a call from the linesman. Had that try been scored we could have seen a lot more of a satisfying scoreline from our point of view."
Wales were almost undone in Rome by their indiscipline having been hammered at the hands of referee Wayne Barnes. A 15-6 penalty count will no doubt be cause for concern but while admitting the team's discipline is a worry, Jones believes that the weekend's events were an 'anomaly' caused by unusual difficulties at the scrum.
"That was a disappointment for us and the majority of them came from the scrum," he said. "The scrum has been going pretty well in the first two games and I don't think we've had double figures [penalties], definitely not more than 10 or 11, in any other game thus far in the campaign. It was a bit of an anomaly for us that the scrum was penalised so heavily. That was the biggest disappointment but if we look at the set-piece as a whole, we can take some positives from it."
Ireland are unlikely to pose the same questions of a Wales set-piece that even in the absence of Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones has stood up to almost every gauntlet thrown down this season. Paul James and Craig Mitchell appear to represent that fabled, intangible goal for Wales: strength in depth at key positions.
"They're big shoes to fill in both Gethin and Adam's position and the likes of Paul and Craig have done admirably," Jones said. "They both played in the Ospreys' win against Toulon before the campaign and put their hands up for selection. At the moment they're doing a great job, against England and Scotland, it's just unfortunate that for some reason they were penalised so often at the weekend. I think those two names are have been two of the most consistent performers and most reliable in the competition."
As the end of the Six Nations nears the calculators are dusted off and given a thorough going over to determine the likely breakdown at the end of the tournament. Jones has done his homework and believes, without a hint of the irony seen in some of the media's dealing with the idea, that Wales can come out of this one on top.
"First and foremost we're looking for the win over Ireland and beyond to the end of the Six Nations," he said. "If we beat Ireland and do well against France and Ireland beat England then anything can happen for us. If the maths work out in our favour we could end up winning the tournament. We're very aware of that but also we've got a bigger eye on the next opponent. We're aware of the permutations, the positive and negatives coming into the final weekend, with regards to the Six Nations, we feel we're still in it."
A win over Ireland would be another step forward in Wales' pursuit of their best. A win in style would see them off on the right foot not only for the final week of the Six Nations but also a certain gathering in New Zealand at the end of the year. It's shaping up to be some match.
Alun-Wyn Jones was speaking on behalf of the Wales Rugby Team at a unique sweat session to launch Powerade ION4, a new sports drink which helps replenish four of the minerals lost in sweat. Check out the ION4 sweat session with Alun-Wyn Jones and players from the other home nations at www.poweradegb.com
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Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.