Wales... werent that good
BY WINNING ALL four matches in the international rugby championship in 1978, Wales created all sorts of records - three Triple Crowns in succcession; a record number of grand slams, personal scoring records for their captain Phil rlennett and for serummhalf Gareth Edwards ,and for Edwards also the unique achievement of becoming the first Welshman to win 50 caps.
However, Wales were flattered by their grand slam. Like France, they are a good side, rather than a- great one, and they owed two of their victories to refereeing errors. But for these mistakes, the chances are that Wales' matches against both England and Ireland would have been drawn, and if they had been, the championship table would have proovided a truer reflection of the abilities of the five teams.
France had more good players than anyone else, but they chose to play throughout the championship withhout an established fly-half and without an international class goalkeeper. They did not do their homework about the opposition, either, and consequently always looked prodigal and carelessly prepared. Despite these crippling self-imposed handicaps, France very nearly won all four matches and the championship, and had only themselves to blame for failing to beat Wales in the decisive match at Cardiff Arms Park at the end of the season. Even with a flyyhalf who plays as a rather wooden full-back for his club, as Bernard Vivies does, France were consisstently more dangerous and more creative. They simply failed to take their chances.
Wales owed most to Allan Martin who unexpectedly gave them parity against Jean-Pierre Bastiat in the lineeout, and to the tactical kicking of Phil Bennett and Gareth Ed wards. As a result, Wales squeezed every drop out of the possibilities open to them France threw most of theirs away.
France were slow to react to Wales' use of the defensive wheel at the scrummage. Bastiat looked as if he had not been introduced to France's two new wings when they were trying to throw in to him in
the lineout in the first half. France also failed to make use, both at the lineout and elsewhere, of the vastly superior speed of Jean-Pierre Rives and Jean-Claude Skrela in the back row. Talent France had in abunndance, and in serum-half Jerome Gallion they had the new star of the championship, but they played as if their tactical director was as thick as two short planks.
One of the most curious features of the season was the number of controversial scores Wales made against all four of their opponents, and the consequent determination of the laws committees of England and Scotland to press for changes, nottably in the law relating to the tackle and playing the ball. The outcome. of Ireland's matches against Wales was also significantly affected by refereeing mistakes, and even after Wales' game against France, referees' societies throughout Britain were arguing that three of the four Welsh scores should not have been alllowed.
Steve Fenwick was allowed to go on and score a try for Wales against Scotland after J.J. Williams had thrown the ball forward in a tackle; Phil Bennett
kicked Wales' winning penalty goal against England when Bob Mordell was penalised for handling the ball in a ruck. when in fact the ball had never touched the ground. 1.1. Williams was allowed to score a try for Wales against Ireland after Ray Gravell had run in front of the Welsh ball-carrier, which is illegal, and had collided with three of the Irish defence, which is even more illegal. Phil Bennett scored his first try against France from a posiition set up when the Welsh midfield was offside in front of a cross-kick by Gareth Ed wards; Bennett scored his second try against France after Ray Gravell had played the ball off the ground after a tackle; and finally, Steve Fenwick dropped a goal against France after Jeff Squire had knocked on and France were given a highly dubious advantage which never looked like materialising.
Even less attractive was the obsttruction of Mike Gibson by J.P.R. Williams when Gibson was attempting to follow up a kick ahead in Ireland's match against Wales. 1.P.R. Williams . admitted on television afterwards that he had deliberately committed what soccer players call a professional foul because "it was better to give away three points, rather than four. As it happened the referee missed it." That was not all that George Domercq missed, either; not by a very long chalk.
J.P.R. Williams disappointed even more of his admirers when, in Wales' match against France, he caught a drop kick at goal by Bernard Vivies. Williams knew that the kick at goal was successful, but he ran upfield as if it had missed. Fortunately, Alan Welsby, the referee, had the courage to ignore that and award the goal.
I remember Mike Gibson raising his arm aloft to signal the success of a distinctly squeaky dropped goal by Barry John against Ireland a few years ago. I remember Tom Kiernan doing the same thing at Murrayfield in a match against Scotland. How much nicer it would have been if I.P.R. Williams had lifted his arm similarly to acknowledge the success of Vivies' kick.
Unhappily, the impression has spread this season that the Welsh team has been getting away with a lot of old soldier's tricks. These tricks are not attractive and they point to a further decline in the spirit in which the game of rugby football is being played at international level. British rugby cannnot really complain. The example set by the British Lions in South Africa in 1974 was deplorable. The fact remains, however, that any further decline in sportsmanship must innevitably lead to disenchantment and disaffection.
It is also a fact that too many of the games, and the international championship itself, have been decided by the eccentricities of refereeing decisions rather than by the actions of players. International rugby is now very much a goalkicking game, and therefore the decisions of referees are vital.
It is obvious that referees are becoming aware of this. I doubt if it was an accident that Ireland's John Nest awarded only one penalty kick to the attacking side in their opponent's half of the field in the match between Scottland and England at Murrayfield. Enggland took that kick and missed it. The only successful penalty kick at goal in the Calcutta Cup match was by England's Paul Dodge, from five yards inside his own half.
Goalkicking was the one factor that sustained Ireland. Tony Ward, their fly-half, equalled the international by scoring 38 points in his first season of international rugby. It was a reemarkable achievement.
I think that Ward is the best striker of the ball as an instep kicker that I have seen. I know that means that I rate him in front of Barry John, but remember that there were times, even after he had left Llanelli and joined Cardiff, that Barry only got on as a goalkicker as about 'fourth choice for his club. He did not really develop his technique until 1970 and 1971, four years after he first started to play international rugby. On the Lions tour of South Africa in 1968, Tom Kiernan and Bob Hiller did the goalkicking.
From the beginning of the 197 8 season, there has never been any doubt that Ward would do Ireland's goallkicking. He is like a top class tourrnament golfer pitching to a green. He is so easy and relaxed through the ball, and he stays down on the kick for so long, that it seems mildly odd if he misses the centre of the space between the posts by more than six inches.
Ward has a lot else going for him, too. Watching video-tape recordings of Ireland's games against Wales and England, I think he may well be reesolving to improve his decisionmaking as a fly-half next season, but the natural ability is unquestionably there. If he. wants to go, he will play fly-half for the Lions on their next tour of South Africa.
Ireland might well have put themmselves into a position of contending for the championship if they had been able to find a really top-class tight head prop, and a jumper to give them a share of the ball in the middle of the lineout.
England's props are among the most experienced in the game and they said from the beginning that Ireland would come unstuck beecause of their shortcomings in the front row. This proved a remarkably accurate assessment, though it is a state of affairs that is all the more surprising because of Ireland '5 great tradition of front row play. Wales did far too much damage to the Irish scrummage for the peace of mind of a team that has to rely on hard driving forward play, and acccurate goalkicking, to win matches.
The hardest part of the deal in these days of soft-toed football boots is to find a goalkicker. Ireland have one, and arguably he is already the best in the business. But where are their props?
Ireland also suffered, because of the injury to Donal Spring . He fell down some steps at Trinity College and injured an ankle and from that moment on, Ireland 'were never really in contention in the lineout, well as tVilIie Duggan and ,doss £eane played. In Ireland's games against Scottland arid France, Duggan played as well as I have ever seen him play. Keane did even better. In all four games, he played the best football of his life. I am told, on excellent authority, that Moss has been a total abstainer from the demon drink since the Lions tour ended in August. If that is the case, he must be worth an absolute fortune in advertising to temperance societies the world over! The mari has been transformed as a rugby player.
Unfortunately for Ireland, Moss Keane is not a number five jumper, and for all his excellent qualities as a loose forward, Harry Steele is not a lock. Playing out. of position as these two were, behind an indiffferen t front row, there was no way that the Irish pack could be commpetitive in the international chammpionship.
The Irish selectors will not need telling, either, that 38 of Ireland's 46 points scored in the championnship came from kicks at goal, all of them scored by Tony Ward. Ireland scored only two tries in four matches; one from a five yard serum given away by a hopelessly imprudent piece of play by Scotland's Doug Morgan and the other from a charrged down kick by J.P.R. Williams. A team needs to be more creative than that to hope for any more than a short-lived success in international rugby.
Ireland will have to, repair those weaknesses very quickly, because before they know where they are, they will be playing the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road on November 4. At least they can be sure of one thing. Mike Gibson will still be their best back .•