Rugby’s greatest tournament is back and for the next six weeks every Wales fan will be watching to see if Wayne Pivac’s team can reach the heights set by Warren Gatland’s previous Grand Slam winning squad. As one of those Wales fans, I’ve decided that supporting the team alone is no longer enough and that I should produce a detailed player ratings account after each Wales game. Before anyone asks; no, I’m not a rugby expert, and yes, these ratings are simply my own, humble opinion, if you don’t like them that’s fine, the idea here is to generate a moderate rugby discussion, and for me to write more posts already.
With that established, let’s move on. Wales’ opening game of the 2020 campaign was a home game versus Italy. Pivac would no doubt have been targeting a bonus point win here, and the boys didn’t disappoint, producing an emphatic 42-0 result and placing firmly at the top of the table. Here’s how the team stacked up:
15. Leigh Halfpenny – 9/10
With Liam Williams not fully fit for the game, Halfpenny needed to step up to the mark and prove that he deserves to be in contention for a starting position and he took every opportunity to do so. The Scarlets man was calm and controlled at fullback and was particularly good in the air, under the high ball, his beautifully timed and weighted pass put Josh Adams in for the first try of the game. Whilst there’s no denying Halfpenny is a world-class player, this game was one of his best internationals in a long time.
14. Johnny McNicholl – 7/10
Making his Test debut, Scarlets fans will know the threat McNicholl can be, and although he didn’t score, he played with the confidence of a seasoned international, making good runs and coming off his wing when needed. He did fumble a few tackles though and won’t be able to get away with that against tougher opposition.
13. George North – 7/10
The decision to play North out of position at centre, when currently, even on the wing he has been a little shakey, was perhaps the most questionable of Pivac’s selection choices, particularly when Steffan Hughes has been outstanding for the Scarlets this season, and the squad had a ready to go, out-and-out centre in the shape of Nick Tompkins (take a bow). North was perhaps lucky to have touched down twice (although one try ended up disallowed) to deflect from the fact that his inclusion at 13 was somewhat unmerited. Picking a player on reputation rather than form rarely pays off and although North had a good enough game against gli Azzuri, Pivac may wish to consider his other options moving forward.
12. Hadleigh Parkes – 7/10
Parkes left the field with what looked like a potential injury but no confirmation from the Wales camp since means a sigh of relief can be breathed. The now-regular centre didn’t have the flashiest of games but his work-rate didn’t fly under the radar, he maintained a 100% successful tackle rate, completing 12 the most of any of the backs.
11. Josh Adams – 9/10
Look, nobody’s getting a 10 after one match, but if anyone was going to it would have been Josh Adams. We all know he’s a man in form and was the top try scorer in the World Cup last year, but what impressed even more than the hattrick of tries he produced was the way in which he produced them. Clinical is the word that springs to mind; all three tries were closely contested but Adams worked to ensure that he didn’t stray into touch by getting his angles and timing right to perfection (Hallam Amos, take note). His third try saw him pop seemingly out of nowhere to cross the line, and although North’s first try was disallowed, it was Adams’ offload that caused the break in the first place. One of the most exciting players in the tournament.
10. Dan Biggar – 8/10
That pass was filthy. Try-assisting passes aside, Biggar still had an impressive game. He played with confidence and rallied the team in his usual aggressive manner, popping up here, there and everywhere in support as Wales attacked. He left most of the in-game kicking to Halfpenny and Tomos Williams but undertook his goal kicking duties with little trouble, missing only one. Overall, a good performance from the Saints player – now go and watch that pass again.
9. Tomos Williams – 7/10
With Gareth Davies carrying a small injury, it was pleasing to see Tomos Williams start at 9. He shone during the World Cup (remember the cat-like way he kept the ball in play against Australia?) and seemed to pick up where he left off. Fast and furious in the first half he kept the momentum going for Wales and produced some decent box-kicking. Has done enough to keep Davies on his toes.
1. Wyn Jones – 6/10
Wyn Jones is another player who put down his mark at the World Cup and, like Tomos Williams, has had his form rewarded in a starting position. It wasn’t the most spectacular of games for the front row but Jones remained a defensive force for the 56 minutes he played, making a number of key tackles. He did concede three penalties though, and will need to be careful here against tougher opposition.
2. Ken Owens – 6/10
It wasn’t the best of games for ‘The Sheriff’ nor was it a particularly bad game. That said, Ken Owens’ class has been apparent for a long time so any sub-par game is bound to stand out somewhat. His lineout wasn’t fantastic but he was constant and consistent in defence.
3. Dillon Lewis – 6/10
It was Dillon Lewis’ foul that led to South Africa’s semi-final winning penalty in the World Cup last year, breaking Welsh hearts. I’m not bringing this up to make a villain of Lewis, rather I think it shows a great deal of faith displayed by Pivac and the coaching team in the Cardiff Blues loose head. Like Jones and Owens, Lewis’ game wasn’t amazing but he put in a good effort and helped the team keep the Italians at zero.
4. Jake Ball – 5/10
It was a quiet game for Ball who only made five tackles during his time on the pitch. He also conceded a couple of penalties and came off early. Nonetheless, this undercooked performance can most likely be chalked up to being a blip rather than anything to worry about.
5. Alun Wyn Jones – 7/10
Does Captain Cymru ever have a bad match? AWJ was, as usual, a commanding presence and a force to be reckoned with, making multiple key tackles and attacking the ruck well. His biggest contribution may have been assisting the 17 stone George North to the floor in order to secure the fourth try of the game.
6. Aaron Wainwright – 7/10
As someone who is squeamish around eyes, must the cameramen insist on filming Wainwright whenever he has to replace his contact lenses? Anyway, Wainwright continued his impressive World Cup form with another great display, putting in 100% effort for the full 80 minutes. He made more tackles than anyone else in the team and was key in the lineout. He did miss two tackles which no doubt will infuriate him, but received no elbows to the head so…every cloud?
7. Justin Tipuric – 8/10
Perhaps one of the most overlooked stars in world rugby, Tipuric put in a MoM performance once again, making more successful tackles than anyone on the pitch (sorry Aaron). He defended well and was a threat in attack, definitely one of Wales’ key players..
8. Taulupe Faletau – 6/10
It was great to see Faletau back in the red jersey and although he can certainly do better, his performance against Italy was encouraging. He barely put a foot wrong and got stuck in when needed.
Nick Topkins – 8/10 (on for McNicholl/Parkes)
What a debut! Perhaps should have started ahead of North and after this performance will almost definitely start against Ireland. He came on initially whilst McNicholl underwent a HIA, but really shone in the second half when, following a good break from Cory Hill, he burst through the Italian defence and scored a fantastic try right under the sticks. Was involved in North’s disallowed try, although it was his knock on that ruled the score void. Deserves the praise he is getting based on this performance but still needs to prove himself further.
Ross Moriarty – 7/10 (on for Faletau)
Moriarty did what he does best, powerhousing his way through the game. He brought on some energy and gave an assured performance.
Cory Hil – 7/10 (on for Ball)
Perhaps should have started this game ahead of Ball. He got stuck in and attacked the ruck well, making plenty of tackles during his 24 minute stint. Most impressive was his break that led to Tompkins’ try, showing energy and vision.
Rob Evans – 6/10 (on for W.Jones)
Has a fair bit to prove and will want to re-secure his starting position. A little rusty perhaps, he missed a tackle despite playing only 24 minutes and gave away a penalty. Is confident however and could well start against Ireland.
Leon Brown – 6/10 (on for Lewis)
A pretty like-for-like replacement and didn’t offer much different from Lewis. Played well and didn’t do anything to let the side down.
Rhys Webb – 5/10 (on for Williams)
Ok, let’s address the elephant in the room. It was great to see Rhys Webb back in the Wales squad, he’s a top class nine and arguably a victim of Galtand’s eligibility law. Not so long ago Webb was Wales’ #1 scrum half and his exclusion from the team left many a supporter dismayed (despite Gareth Davies being a more than competent replacement even then). However, the recent hype around Webb’s return, and the suggestions that he should start for Wales once more have been nothing short of ridiculous. Players need to be starting on merit and form, not reputation *cough* George North *cough* and few can argue that both Gareth Davies and Tomos Williams have been outstanding for club and country during Webb’s absence. What’s more, Webb’s recent form for Toulon has been middling and hardly worthy of an immediate starting return. That said it was interesting to see how he played when he came on for Williams. Let’s just say: he needs to improve. There’s no denying he is a good player and he didn’t have a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination, however he was slow in his distribution, fumbled on the ball a little, and most infuriatingly, spent so much time complaining to the referee that the Italians were able to take advantage of his lack of concentration. There can only be room for one ref-hounder in a team and that role has been expertly filled by Dan Biggar (and even he’s cooled down in recent months), Webb needs to learn this and fast because the likes of Ireland and France will capitalise on his lack of awareness with much better outcomes than the Italians did. If Davies is fit next week Webb won’t even make the bench.
Ryan Elias – 6/10 (on for Owens)
Elias didn’t have much time to make a huge impact on the game but the signs are all good. Scarlets fans will tell you that he’s shaping up nicely as Ken Owen’s replacement but he’s not there yet, still, a good backup to have and a reliable hooker.
Jarrod Evans – 6/10 (on for Biggar)
With the likes of Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell sidelined for this campaign, Jarrod Evans has a chance to really shine. He’s not going to usurp Biggar any time soon but he is confident and comfortable on the field which is always an encouraging sign.
Despite a less open second half, it was a comfortable win for Wales that saw newcomers shine and attack and defence rewarded in their ability to keep Italy at nil. Halfpenny, Adams, Tipuric and Biggar all had very good games, and the newcomers looked encouraging. Ireland will be a different challenge however and the forwards – particularly the front row – will need to up their game significantly. Still, the transition from Gatland to Pivac seems to be going smoothly with no signs of immediate concern.
Man of the Match – Guinness gave it to Tipuric and he deserved it, but for me it has to be Halfpenny who was outstanding.
Try of the Match – Halfpenny’s pass to Adams for the first try was a delight and Biggar’s pass for the second was a thing of beauty, but who doesn’t love to see a player score on their debut? It has to be Tompkins’ try.
Moment of Magic – Dan Biggar’s through the legs pass that put Adams in for the second try. That’s a pause, rewind moment for sure.
Predicted lineup v Ireland
1. Wyn Jones (He may still scrape ahead of Evans)
2. Ken Owens
3. Dillon Lewis (just)
4. Cory Hill
5. Alun Wyn Jones
6. Aaron Wainwright
7. Justin Tipuric
8. Taulupe Faletau (although I think he will come off early again)
9. Gareth Davies (if fit, if not it has to be Williams)
10. Dan Biggar
11. Josh Adams
12. Hadleigh Parkes
13. Nick Tompkins
14. Johnny McNicholl
15. Leigh Halfpenny (even if Williams is fit)
Thoughts? Let me know in the comments below…