As the two teams trotted into the changing rooms at half time, the scoreboard made for a worrying read for those clad in purple. With 29 unanswered points to Wales’ name, their World Cup opener against Georgia threatened to be a walkover.
But, then, something curious happened: the Georgians stirred into life. Who knows what was said down deep in the bowels of the City of Toyota Stadium, but after the restart the flow of the game changed. Suddenly there was resistance, there was spirit, there was a refusal to roll over and submit to Wales’ free-flowing, penetrative style of rugby.
The hits came thick and fast. Justin Tipuric, no shrinking violet, was picked up and thrown backwards, a paper bag caught in the wind. Alun Wyn Jones, a mountain of a man, was placed on his backside in the centre of the park. Even George North was not immune to the new-found ferocity of the Georgians. He found himself subject to a well-executed tackle from Georgia’s 9, Vasil Lobzhanidze, who shunted the Welsh wing a good few yards backwards upon the point of collision.
Having failed to come close in the first half, it wasn’t long before Georgia had two converted tries to their name. Yes, Wales added 14 more points to their own scoreline before the game was up, but the manner in which their opponents, ranked 13th in the world, were allowed back into this match didn’t go unnoticed by Warren Gatland.
“It was a good first half but we were a bit messy in the second and the ball was a bit slippery,” he said afterwards. ”Georgia came pretty hard at us in the second half and defended a bit better. To concede those two tries was disappointing.”
“There are a few things to tidy up,” he added.
Indeed, it was a performance that, in so many ways, showcased Wales’ strengths while simultaneously casting their flaws under the spotlight.
Let’s start with the positives. The fluidity and clinical edge of the Welsh backline was, at times, world class, coming into play for a number of the side’s tries. The first, after just two minutes, was a glowing example of this, Jonathan Davies driving hard and true through a gaping hole in the Georgian defence after a fine pass from Gareth Davies.
So too the fourth. It was a stunning display of attacking flair that involved a No 9 wrap-around, some hard running from Jonathan Davies and a well-taken pick-up by Liam Williams. This was Wales at their absorbing best as they carved upon the hapless Georgian defence, pulling it apart from top to tail like a cheese string.
But once Georgia found their feet, it was a different game. The high line enforced by the men in purple began to draw mistakes from their opponents, with balls dropped and momentum-changing tackles made in the heart of midfield.
The Welsh set-piece, in particular, found itself buckling under periods of sustained pressure. The threat posed by the Georgian scrummagers was known beforehand – but that mattered for little as Mikheil Nariashvili and Beka Gigashvili reaped havoc in the front line.
Georgia’s second try of the match came as a result of their efforts, the two men boring in against their opponents to force the penalty, which was quickly followed by a tap-and-go, three phrases of play and, finally, the touch down by Levan Chilachava.
Wales were similarly targeted at the line-out. Georgia’s first try came as a result of back-to-back throw-ins, with Gatland’s men unable to stave off the rolling mass of purple shirts flooding forward against their white line. It was Shalva Mamukashvili who drew blood, crashing over on 44 minutes to set up a more testing second half.
Wales came through the challenge, as was to be expected, but against the likes of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, they’ll be aware that these vulnerabilities will pose a serious threat to their hopes of success here in Japan. Only once they iron out their flaws will the Welsh be able to stand their own against the game’s very best.
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