Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes: New Zealand are 'eminently beatable' and Wales are in World Cup mix
Last Updated: 19/08/19 8:16pm
New Zealand being "eminently beatable", Wales being in the World Cup mix and England's reflections from Cardiff all feature in this week's talking points column.
1. Wales are ranked No 1 in the world. I don't care about it and neither does Warren Gatland but a lot of people out there seem to. If Wales lift the Webb Ellis Cup on November 2, then we are talking.
Wales are Grand Slam winners. That is tangible. They have victories over Australia and South Africa (the latter it must be said, with weaker teams than the ones that faced New Zealand). The rating system is predicated predominantly on results - ergo Wales deserve to be the world's top-rated team. It is a pity there is no prize for this achievement.
The ultimate prize is, of course, the World Cup and even winning that doesn't prove a team is the best in the world. All the current ratings tell us is that Wales, with 15 wins from their last 16 games are very hard to beat. That counts for plenty and puts them in the mix, at least in my particular rugby book.
2. If you write (as I did on Friday) that winning these warm-up games matters, you risk being ridiculed. Yet at full-time the Welsh manager was happy to admit that the win was an important one for Wales.
Back-to-back defeats against England - plus what would have been six losses in the last seven games against their rivals - would have psychological permutations. So says Warren. I am only the messenger.
I wrote ahead of the game that England also needed the win. The theory was based upon the fact that Eddie Jones said that the two aspects of England's play that would offer him the most satisfaction - if they were successful on Saturday - would be brutal dominance at the gainline and thinking their way through the sticky situations.
Had they managed both these challenges, they would have won. They failed on both counts and lost the game. It's not the death knell for England's World Cup but neither is it the 'progress' as George Ford claimed post-match.
3. The England skipper - Ford - did not enjoy a particularly rewarding afternoon. He kicked conservatively for touch and inaccurately in attack. In contrast, Wales returning starter, Dan Biggar, had a field day.
Biggar's double cross-kick for the game's only try was sharp-witted, his high balls were accurate and his defensive play aggressive. He is not the most elegant of players but there's no doubting his ability to rise to a challenge.
Post-match he had a little dig at 1970s Welsh winger, JJ Williams, who, it seems, criticised him or his game (I don't know) pre-match. Williams had every right to offer his opinion. We don't want ex-players to be merely grey-haired cheerleaders.
4. If five minutes stick from what was not a massively memorable game, it would be the first five of the second half. Alun Wyn Jones was everywhere, making monstrous tackles, carrying with effect, slipping lovely little offloads... what a player.
When there was the modern-day equivalent of rough stuff, who was first in for Wales? He is an incredible player and captain.
That in itself is worth a few points in the World Cup. I have said it before and I'll say it again; if the Lions picked a team now, Jones would be the only possible contender for captaincy.
5. Biggar was the official man of the match but few were more influential than Robin McBryde.
At Twickenham, the Wales forwards coach saw his side scrummaged into a sequence of game-ending penalties and driven backwards at will in the lineout. This time, the scrum held and England got nowhere in those close-range drives. Steve Borthwick came off a distant second in the battle of the forward coaches.
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6. Pre-match, Jones wondered about the balance of his World Cup back row. Lacking a natural seven, they have discovered that at least one - if not two - will be needed to get them moving at pace.
If England are to make what would be a substantial improvement to move into the realm of serious contenders, they need to do something radical. I'd say that something is selecting two sevens, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill. Tough on consistent Mark Wilson but this is the World Cup and England need to take a few risks.
7. It's so hard to evaluate the preparedness of the teams with the Northern Hemisphere beginning to unwind and the Southern Hemisphere playing at a state of near World Cup readiness. The All Blacks made the headlines with their 36-0 win against Australia. They bounced back - of course they did. It was Eden Park. Like the Principality for Wales, it makes a major difference.
The Wallabies were far less accurate, enabling New Zealand to play that pyrotechnic pacey game of theirs. If every match in Japan is played at breakneck speed, there's only one winner. I have got a hunch that will not be the case and anyway, what's the fun in tipping New Zealand? I've done that at seven out of eight World Cups. I reckon they are eminently beatable.
8. The team to do it is South Africa but will it be pool stage or final or both? A weakened team won at the weekend against Argentina (nine straight test losses for the Pumas) but the main news was the successful return of their talismanic skipper, Siya Kolisi.
9. The other team who wouldn't be overawed by New Zealand are Ireland. They have been a little flat since beating the All Blacks in 2018 but they will have enjoyed their pool rivals, Scotland, being beaten so comprehensively by England's pool opponents, France.
Early days but not encouraging ones for Scotland. If Ireland win the pool - Japan will be lively on home soil - and the Springboks down New Zealand we have another instalment of Ireland versus the team that they have beaten on two of the last three occasions they have met.
10. Wales haven't beaten New Zealand since 1953. I wouldn't expect them to beat them again. But South Africa or Ireland might and Wales wouldn't be afraid of either of these teams. Nor would England for that matter. It's getting closer and it's England versus Ireland next up.