The bad news for Wales is the best of their southern hemisphere visitors this autumn are yet to come. New Zealand are next in Cardiff, followed by Australia, with the spirit of the Welsh Grand Slam last spring strangely missing in their losses to Argentina seven days ago and now their old enemies, the Samoans.
Fingers are bound to point to Wales’ head coach Warren Gatland being absent for the three summer Tests in Australia when he was hurt in an accident at home, and again for the past fortnight while he attended to his duties as British & Irish Lions head coach. So Rob Howley, the former Wales captain, has an unenviable record of no wins in five as the interim boss. The official restoration of Gatland for the remainder of the autumn will come after the New Zealander takes in today’s meeting of England and Australia.
European champions they may be, but Wales will drop out of the top eight in the world rankings – meaning a tougher pool in the 2015 World Cup when the draw is made on 3 December – if Scotland beat South Africa today.
The Samoa captain, David Lemi, suggested Wales’s tactics had not changed in the year since the teams met in the World Cup. “I watched Wales in the Six Nations and I watched them against Argentina, and I knew if we stopped their go-forward men, we stopped their game,” Lemi said. “Wales’s strength is in their tight five. If they have no ball for their backs, they can’t play rugby.”
Howley said: “It’s funny really because we’ve changed since the Australia tour and changed for the last two games but if they [Samoa] are saying that, it’s up to them.
“This team in the last 12 months have been through a World Cup semi-final and a Grand Slam, they’ve had highs, they are going through a low point. We have a belief in our strong runners but we weren’t accurate enough and international rugby is all about accuracy.”
Last night’s match was very quick and fiercely fought. Samoa, who beat Wales at the 1991 and 1999 World Cups, were handily experienced with 16 Europe-based players in their 23, but their strong-arm tactics occasionally overstepped the acceptable.
The first half had ended with a sickening collision that ended Dan Biggar’s chances of presenting his credentials as an alternative to the off-form Rhys Priestland. The Ospreys fly-half was stooped over a ruck when the Samoan lock Teofilo Paulo clattered into him, shoulder first. Biggar went off, bloodied in the head and with his right arm hanging limply, with Priestland replacing him.
More woe to add to the absent lynchpins Adam Jones, Dan Lydiate and Alun Wyn Jones. And a penalty kicked by Tusiata Pisi – after Samoa’s No 10 had missed twice before – left Wales protecting a slender lead at 13-10.
It was Pisi who had ushered the Wales into that lead when he passed deep to his brother George behind a decoy runner only to spot too late that Ashley Beck had anticipated the move. Beck ran from his 22-metre line with Fa’atoina Autagavaia and Paul Perez chasing him – but never gaining – as the Neath-born centre scored his first try for Wales on his home debut after playing in the three lost Tests in Australia in June.
Ryan Jones had fought back the tears during the anthems on his 29th match as captain, one more than the Wales record held previously by Ieuan Evans. But everyone in red was gulping when Samoa had a try in just 64 seconds. The Newcastle Falcons No 8 Taisina Tuifua bolted clear from a midfield ruck and the follow-up from a ruck under the posts found the Welsh defence badly outnumbered on George North’s wing, allowing Autagavaia a trot-in as the ball went along the line.
The jitters resurfaced with a second Samoa try six minutes into the second half. While Biggar watched with his injured shoulder in a sling, Beck was stripped on the deck by Lemi, and the scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i shot down the shortside. The supporting George Pisi skipped out of Priestland’s tackle and finished acrobatically.
Tusi Pisi missed the conversion before a Leigh Halfpenny special thumped over from a metre inside his own half. While Jamie Roberts unleashed one piledriving tackle after another, Mo Fa’asavalu dragged Ken Owens out of a ruck by his neck. Halfpenny punished that with a 30-metre kick in between two penalties by Pisi. And when Wales, who had generally been favoured by the French referee at the breakdown, badly needed a solid scrum they were splintered with four minutes remaining. Pisi’s kick went wide but Johnny Leota soon finished Wales off, dotting down when Halfpenny agonisingly failed to reach a loose ball in his in-goal.
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