A moment of calm brilliance from the Ospreys’ Sam Davies saw Wales clinch a dramatic victory in the nail-biting final moments of an otherwise drab performance from the home side in Cardiff on Saturday.
Replacement Sam Davies stood back and let the forwards make ground until he was within striking distance, successfully slotting a 30m drop goal without breaking a sweat to allow Wales to nudge ahead of Japan with seconds to spare.
It’s becoming a familiar tale for Wales this autumn, sadly. Completely blown apart by Australia in the first of the November games, Rob Howley responded by dropping Jamie Roberts and was also able to call upon stars Alun Wyn Jones and Liam Williams for the Argentina clash. That was a stodgy affair, but Wales emerged (narrowly) victorious.
I was pretty confused by the Wales team sheet for the Japan game, however. On paper, this was the easiest of the four games, certainly in terms of world rankings. The first Wales international I ever attended at the Millennium Stadium was against Japan in 2004, a game we won 98-0, with Colin Charvis having a try disallowed at the final whistle, if I remember correctly. Japan are undoubtedly a different prospect nowadays, having a team in the Super Rugby tournament, and competitive against many of the top teams. They most notably beat South Africa in last year’s world cup, and are not to be taken lightly.
Therefore, I would have expected the Wales team to reflect one of two things: either to show continuity by retaining selection from the Argentina game, and building on that momentum towards next weekend’s Springboks clash; or make virtually wholesale changes, allowing the fringe players exposure and an opportunity at test match rugby.
The team chosen by Howley, however, was a strange mix of the two, leaving me slightly baffled as to exactly what Wales were trying to achieve from this game. A back-line of Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert is surely among a first choice combination – although Cuthbert has been admittedly out of form at this level for some time now. Gareth Anscombe started at fly-half for the first time, forming an entirely new half-back pairing with club-mate Lloyd Williams, while Nicky Smith started in the front row alongside Bridgend product Scott Baldwin (who had his best game for Wales in ages) and lynchpin Samson Lee.
Kristian Dacey and Rhys Gill were on the bench, and Ospreys prodigy Keelan Giles missed his chance to win his first cap from the bench as a replacement. Personally, I’d have started with all three, and changed for experience as the game wore on. I would also have started with the excellent Sam Davies at ten, who certainly showed his quality and held his nerve in the games’ dying seconds.
Instead, we were treated to yet another disappointing, sludgy performance against a Japanese side that ran with width and pace, and gave everything to the game. Wales were content with battering defenders in midfield, trying to make holes, while the visitors were playing all the attractive rugby. I think most spectators would have preferred to have lost to this Japan side if we had done so in the process of blooding young players like Giles, for example, and at least played with some more attacking flair.
Next up, the Springboks roll into Cardiff on the back of officially their worst ever year of test match rugby, having lost nine of their games in 2016, most recently to Italy in Florence. That was an incredible win for the Azzuri, their first ever against South Africa. Based on Wales’ performances so far this season, both teams I think – I hope – will come out guns blazing, wanting to prove a point, set down a marker, and end the year on a high.