Howley preaches need for speed as sluggish Wales engulfed by gloom
Coach's men under pressure to rediscover their sharpness against Samoa on Friday
There was a resolute shake of the head and a definitive "no" when Wales's stand-in leader Rob Howley was asked if encroaching decline in the regions had any bearing on the rudderless, ramshackle display against Argentina. Perhaps the question needs to be rephrased. Should standards fall any lower against New Zealand and Australia, will decline in the international arena send the professional game in Wales into greater despair?
Samoa on Friday offers an early reprieve from the gathering gloom but Wales will have to be far sharper than they were against Argentina not only to prevail but build on the aura of Grand Slam champions. If immersion in elite combat against the southern hemisphere's finest was behind the resounding empowerment of Argentina, then Wales must hope there is a commensurate benefit after this drubbing.
Certainly, there was a cohesion and belief about the visitors that the hosts could not match. It mattered not that Argentina did not record a victory in the inaugural Rugby Championship. Going deep against the All Blacks, the Boks and Australia, while the northern hemisphere slept, forged a new and compelling unity on the Argentina side.
Wales presented a collection of big reputations, which, shorn of the same intensity of preparation, could not keep pace in any aspect of the game. Had Argentina kicked less in the opening period and ran at the Welsh lines it might have been worse. The hand speed and lines of attack through the three-quarters and wings provided the kind of thrills the crowd expected of Wales.
George North and Alex Cuthbert appeared sluggish in comparison with counterparts in powder blue shirts, Juan Imhoff and the excellent Gonzalo Camacho, who both went over after the break for the only tries of the match. Leigh Halfpenny's unfailing boot was the only reply. His four penalties gave Wales an unrepresentative lead at 12-6, but once Imhoff finished off a rampant passing sequence by slipping inside the stretched Halfpenny to dive under the posts, Wales were utterly skewered. Camacho's outstretched hand in the corner under pressure from Halfpenny merely iced the cake.
Wales lost Jamie Roberts and Alun Wyn Jones to crushing first-half tackles, compounding the absence of Adam Jones and Dan Lydiate. But that was not the reason Wales lost, leaving Howley with nowhere to go but the brave-face corner. "We trained well all week, but looked one paced. We need to speak to players for the reasons why. Tempo and pace is important. There is no doubt that the experience and exposure to that championship [the Rugby Championship] has taken Argentine rugby to a new level. They have learned against the best in the summer. We were very much second best. That is disappointing and frustrating."
Wales's assistant coach, Shaun Edwards, believed before this encounter that this was the best prepared Welsh team in his tenure. His face was a sheet of granite afterwards as a new reality dawned. "I definitely thought the impact from the Argentina bench was better than ours. We went into the game with certain personnel missing and it showed quite dramatically in the last half hour," Edwards said. "Both starting centres from the Grand Slam were missing. We had our No 6 and No 3 missing and it showed. We have to get the other players up to pace as quickly as possible. But it was obvious there is a disparity at the moment between our first-choice XV and the players who have got those positions now."
With Wales looking to secure an easier route through the World Cup seeding pot when the world rankings are adjusted next month, the requirement to respond has acquired greater urgency, as Howley acknowledged: "We want to get into the top four. This is a setback but we have three games to go. There is a lot to play for. It is important we go into these games with belief and confidence, to get back to winning ways against Samoa."
For the neutral, and for the game as a whole, the steep improvement in breadth and consistency of Argentina was a delight to observe. They have always had world-class individuals peppering the team but this was different. The speed and conviction of the backs, the commitment and industry of the forwards, exemplified by the man-of-the-match display of skipper and blindside Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, augments the global rugby template. For Argentina the victory was, according to Lobbe, a demonstration of how far this team has come.
"To get a win against the Six Nations champions affirms the way we are trying to play and what we are trying to do. It's great for our confidence. We were close in the championship but didn't manage to do it. But we gained experience. Today was similar to what we did against Australia, making two quick scores. Australia came back but today we were able to play the last 10 minutes mostly in their half."
Wales: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, S Williams, J Roberts, G North; R Priestland , T Knoyle;: G Jenkins, M Rees , A Jarvis, I Evans , A-W Jones , J Turnbull, T Faletau (Dragons), S Warburton (capt). Replacements: J Hook for Roberts, 23, R McCusker for Jones, 40; M Phillips for Knoyle 56, R Hibbard for Rees 60, P James for Jarvis 60, R Bevington for Jenkins 69, J Tipuric for Warburton 70.
Argentina: J M Hernandez; G Camacho , G Tiesi , F Contepomi , J J Imhoff; N Sanchez, M Landajo; J M Fernandez Lobbe (capt), J M Leguizamon, L Senatore, J F Cabello, M Carizza, J Figallo, E Guinazu, M Ayerza. Replacements: J Tuculet for Contepomi 13, H Agulla for Hernandez 46, A Creevy for Guinazu 49, T Leonardi for Senatore 57, T Vallejos for Cabello 65, J Gomez for Figallo, 67, N Vergallo for Landajo 67, B Posiglioni for Ayerza 79.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)..
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