Wales
Wales - The new curate's egg
John Taylor
November 26, 2014
Wales need a southern hemisphere scalp © Getty Images
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What constitutes a full-blown Test Match and have the Welsh fans been conned? The news that South Africa and Wales will both be below full strength for reasons other than injuries begs the question.

There seemed to be no mention of the fact that certain players would be unavailable because of contractual reasons when the game was first advertised and ticket prices, although marginally cheaper than those for the New Zealand match, are still in the top bracket.

Five Springboks, including the hugely influential Bryan Habana and Schalk Burger, have been forced to return to their clubs in France and Japan because of contractual obligations and Wales will be without Paul James, Richard Hibbard, James Hook and Bradley Davies who must return to their English clubs because the game is outside the agreed international window.

James and Hibbard will be sorely missed in the battle for forward supremacy - often a deciding factor in matches against the Springboks - and Hook might also have played an important role with Dan Biggar struggling for fitness.

Interestingly, George North - if he is fit - and the French contingent, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and Leigh Halfpenny, are available although their clubs could have refused to release them. In North's case we know there is a clause in his contract that guarantees his availability for Wales but that did not stop Premiership Rugby Ltd. fining Northampton £60,000 for contravening its rules. Quite why the French are being so helpful remains a mystery.

 
"I have to confess I am bored of hearing "I can't fault the effort". Let us take that for granted and look for some quality in the vital areas"
 

What makes it all the more unsatisfactory is that this is a hugely important match for Wales. Yet again they have underperformed in the autumn series against the southern hemisphere countries and they desperately need to turn the tide against South Africa. Another whitewash against the big three has to undermine confidence for the World Cup whatever Warren Gatland would like us to believe.

True, there were some very good things to be taken from the match against New Zealand but 34-16 is a hammering in anybody's book, especially with a try count of five to one. Despite the fact that Wales were in the lead after 68 minutes they were generally under the cosh. I hoped for a miracle but I was never confident they could hold-out and all round the stadium there was a resigned acceptance of the inevitable as the last 12 minutes unfolded.

The defence was heroic - the pressure and strength of the tackling was every bit as much responsible for the number of turnovers (20 against 18, the only battle that Wales won) as New Zealand sloppiness - but it masked some very worrying fault-lines. The scrum was always on the back-foot and James, a tower of strength previously this season, was very close to being sin-binned in the first half for constantly collapsing. Much worse, though, was the line-out performance. Wales lost six of 17 on their own throw and won poor quality ball on several more so they never had the attacking platform that New Zealand enjoyed. We know New Zealand are good (as are South Africa) but with Alun Wyn Jones and Jake Ball plus the option of Luke Charteris at 6ft 10ins that is inexcusable.

From that very dodgy platform Wales were still able to challenge but the difference in the kicking game of the two sides was the real decider. Wales were awful and a groan went around the Millennium every time the ball was kicked. It may sound counter-intuitive but very often a look at the running metres gained is a good guide to which side kicked badly. New Zealand made 495 metres ball in hand, Wales just 178.

George North's availability comes as a huge boost for Wales - if fit © Getty Images
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Most of that was running the ball back after Biggar fell into bad old ways and hoisted the ball hopefully 30 or 40 metres up-field almost every time he received it. Everybody knows that is suicide against the All Blacks - no team counter-attacks better - but, inexplicably, Wales persisted and paid the penalty even though there were signs that Roberts and North, in particular, would eventually find holes through the middle. New Zealand invariably ran it back with interest.

Biggar can argue he had little choice given the quality of the possession but had to try something different when it was clear it was not working. He had a real curate's egg of a game - really good in defence most of the time but horribly at fault for Julian Savea's try when he tried to take the big man high and was predictably swatted away - but is worth another chance.

When New Zealand did kick they did it well, looking to get in behind the defence or opting for the surprise chip before settling for the up and under as a last resort and they have now added the crossfield punt, delivered with such accuracy it is almost a pass.

Three tries came directly from kicks (four if you count Kieran Reid's charge-down) and whilst Beauden Barrett's first owed everything to a lucky bounce the others were beautifully executed. Wales need to be exploring those different options on Saturday if they are to trouble the Springboks.

I have to confess I am bored of hearing "I can't fault the effort". Let us take that for granted and look for some quality in the vital areas. The reality is that Wales played badly against New Zealand. South Africa are vulnerable but Wales need to dramatically improve the set pieces and their kicking game to create a winning platform. It is something the coaching team should be able to put right so, for me, they are under the microscope as much as the players.

Those missing players take away a little bit of gloss but all that will be forgotten if Wales can come up with a win - any sort of a win. Gatland is putting on a brave face but these are desperate times.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist

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