Wales who are happy to exchange party pieces for points for style for substance
Fly-half Dan Biggar happy with the new pragmatic approach adopted by champions
Sunday 24 February 2013
The great entertainers have become the pragmatists of Europe after Wales abandoned the beautiful game to win at all costs. Adventure and excitement have been replaced by measure and efficiency, although the compromise could yet deliver a second successive Six Nations title against all odds after Saturday's 26-9 victory over Italy here.
It is a dramatic departure from the spirit of Welsh rugby and what the natives back home will think has yet to be seen, given Wales will play the third of three successive away games against Scotland on 9 March. Welsh rugby has been reared on will-o'-the- wisp talents such as Cliff Morgan, Barry John and Phil Bennett and revelled in Grand Slams.
Their brand of "total rugby" cut a swathe in 2005, Shane Williams was at his side-stepping best in 2008 while the force of nature that is George North, Jamie Roberts and Alex Cuthbert were too strong last year.Now it is the unfashionable grafters who are lauded for their effort and sheer bloody-mindedness, with Ryan Jones, Toby Faletau and Adam Jones the new heroes.
But if necessity is the mother of all invention then desperation is surely its grandparent. The change was born from the pain and frustration of eight defeats in a row and results are helping the heeling process.
Fly-half Dan Biggar said: "It's no good playing well and losing because you don't get anything from that. You may be entertaining people but internally you get very little from it. Once you've got that solid base with a couple of wins, it's important to push on and get more. "
During that nine months of misery were four defeats to Australia by a combined losing margin of 12 points, and Wales simply grew sick and tired of glorious failure. The usual Welsh response to adversity is revert to type, throw the ball around with abandon and hope for the best, as they almost did against Ireland after digging themselves into an almighty hole.
But needs must and having come under intense scrutiny amid the continued defeats, interim head coach Rob Howley, is content to win ugly.
Just as in Paris two weeks earlier, there was nothing pretty about this victory in a torrential downpour in Italy but Wales rolled up their sleeves to reign in Rome. They obliterated Italy's scrum, defended manfully and scored from the few chances on offer, thanks to Biggar.
The 23-year-old has had to wait for his opportunity in the No 10 jersey and is demonstrating that patience on the field. He offers control, plays the percentages, as he did for Jonathan Davies' try, and can fire a scoring pass as he did to Cuthbert.
He said: "It's difficult enough to win in Italy but the wind and the rain in the first half was torrential. It was always going to be about sticking to the game-plan rather than giving a 10 out of 10 performance but we got the win, which is all that matters. It's important that we can win when we're not playing 100 per cent and that's what we've done the last few weeks, so we're in a good place right now."
Given that this weekend witnessed Pope Benedict give his last Sunday address at St Peter's Church and the most important general election in a generation, this result barely registered in Italy. But Wales proved to the rest of Europe, and particularly England, they are not about to give up their title as readily as Il Papa.
Wales are a tough team to beat. They have not conceded a try in 200 minutes of rugby, to the unbridled delight of defence coach Shaun Edwards, and have won six of their last seven away games in the Championship. At this rate, Wales will prefer not to play in the pressure-cooker of the Millennium Stadium. The next time they do, against England, on March 16, it could yet be for the title.
Gethin Jenkins is struggling to recover from a recurrence of a chronic calf problem that flared up again, so Paul James is on stand-by for Murrayfield. Alun Wyn Jones could well relieve Andrew Coombs after his successful comeback although Sam Warburton, another to return from injury, is unlikely to start given the form of Justin Tipuric and leadership qualities demonstrated by Jones.
However, as long as Wales have Leigh Halfpenny, man of the match for the second game in a row, they possess a match-winner, according to Barry John: "One player doesn't make a team but he can make a difference. Halfpenny is basically what Gareth Bale is to Tottenham and the Wales football team, and their respective managers must be thrilled to be able to call upon such huge talents. He's only 24 but he is already a master of his craft."
Scorers: Italy: Penalties Burton 3. Wales: Tries J Davies, Cuthbert; Conversions Halfpenny 2; Penalties Halfpenny 4.
Replacements: Italy Garcia for G Canale, 63; Botes for Gori, 65; De Marchi for Lo Cicero, 54; Giazzon for Ghiraldini, 54; Cittadini for Castrogiovanni, 70; Geldenhuys for Minto, 54; Derbyshire for Favaro, 69. Wales S Williams for Roberts, 71; Hook for Biggar, 68; L Williams for Phillips, 63; James for Jenkins, 45; Owens for Hibbard, 51; Mitchell for A Jones, 73; A Jones for Coombs, 51; Warburton for R Jones, 68.
Referee R Poite (France). Attendance 73,526.
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