Yes, they opened their campaign with a loss, and a first loss to Scotland in Cardiff for 22 years at that, but the roaring comeback in the second half of the 27-26 reverse at the Principality Stadium helped build a positive mood at the full-time whistle. They fell agonisingly short of the biggest successful fightback in championship history but by outscoring their opponents 26-0 from the 43rd minute onwards behind a number of stellar individual performances, the springboard is there to leap from.
However, now comes an even greater challenge as this inexperienced Wales side seeks victory over England at Twickenham Stadium – a sort of final frontier for Welsh rugby. The value of momentum will truly be put to the test as the current group aim to succeed where many of their more decorated predecessors have failed.
Just three times since 1988 (36 years for those who are counting) have Wales won at Twickenham. The 2008 and 2012 vintages did so en route to winning a Six Nations grand slam, while a shock victory at the 2015 World Cup helped send England crashing out of their home tournament at the group stage – a thought which rightly still brings Welsh fans glee to this very day.
Of the 23-man matchday squad named for Saturday’s showdown by Warren Gatland, only veteran centre George North has experienced beating England in southwest London. North’s return from injury is timely and his 119 caps of experience, more than double any of his team-mates, will be a valuable asset.
“I don’t find Twickenham intimidating at all!” insisted Gatland at his pre-match press conference. “It is great when you come in through the gates and everyone is outside and you’ve got the fans there. It is a great stadium to enter.
“I love the atmosphere, and it is even more special if you can walk away with a win. That is not easy to do. It is a stadium that I have loved going to. For me, it doesn’t hold any trepidation. For us, it is about starting well and stopping the crowd singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ too early. Silence them a bit - that becomes an important factor.”
The head coach may not fear the stadium but, with the best will in the world, this is not a grand slam-quality team. In fact, the first 40 minutes against Scotland last weekend may have been the worst half of rugby in either Gatland era. Whether the issue was the coaches’ gameplan or the players’ execution – and as always with these things, the reality is probably a combination of both – it doesn’t bode well for the sort of performance needed to triumph at Twickenham.
But two factors should give them cause for hope. Firstly, the second-half performance in Cardiff was tantalising and the starting XV for this Saturday is far closer to the side that ended the Scotland game than started it. Secondly, England are themselves in something of a rebuilding phase and Italy, in a narrow 27-24 defeat in Rome, showed it is eminently possible to get at them.
Perhaps the key to both these factors is Ioan Lloyd, who has been thrust into the Wales No 10 jersey and all the weight of history that brings. When starting fly half Sam Costelow went down with a head injury late in the first half against Scotland, 22-year-old Lloyd came on to pull the strings and it’s undeniable that things drastically improved under his guidance after the break.
The kick-heavy strategy and structured, but largely ineffective, play under Costelow was replaced by a much more free, expansive style of rugby exploiting space out wide. The freedom of being 27-0 down undoubtedly played into that and after a couple of tries, confidence and momentum turned Welsh pressure into a tidal wave. But it’s also true that, having played the majority of his career at Bristol Bears at full back, on the wing or in the centres – before his summer move to Scarlets – Lloyd is probably better-suited to that harum-scarum style of rugby than the more cautious game management of a ‘traditional’ fly half.
If Costelow is something of a Dan Biggar-lite, an extremely generous comparison for Lloyd could be that his play has elements of the legendary, and recently departed, Barry John – a gliding running style and instinctive mind. To clarify, the youngster is clearly nowhere near John’s league but if you squint, the similarities are there.
“He is an instinctive player, so we need to allow him that opportunity to express himself,” admitted Gatland of Lloyd. “He’s working hard on his kicking game with Neil Jenkins. That’s an area of improvement. For him, he’s a quality runner.
“We’re not trying to put him under any pressure. The worst thing he can do is go out and try to make a gap and get caught and get turned over. There are times when the game will open up and loosen up and you have got to play heads-up rugby. He has got the ability to be able to do that and he has definitely got the freedom to do that.”
The question is whether Gatland will truly abandon the ‘Warrenball’ that has defined his hugely successful 15 years in charge of Wales for a looser style of play that probably suits this rookie squad better. There’s no guarantee that the latter would be successful for 80 minutes in the Twickenham cauldron of course but to breach the final frontier he may have to think outside the box.
Certainly, it could exploit the England weakness that Italy exposed – namely that the aggressive blitz encouraged by new defence coach Felix Jones leaves huge spaces on the outside. The Azzurri took advantage of that to the tune of three tries and if Lloyd can process things quickly enough to accurately ship the ball to destructive backs such as North, Josh Adams or Rio Dyer in space, then damage can be done. England will gamble on players shooting out of the line to disrupt Lloyd’s rhythm – can he run an attack effectively enough to mitigate this?
It will be two imperfect teams squaring off on Saturday afternoon and history suggests the hosts will do enough to come out on top in the latest chapter of this bitter rivalry. But if Gatland is brave enough, Lloyd is smart enough and Wales can ride a wave of momentum, then history may just be within their grasp.
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