In the book Friday Night Lights by Harry Gerard Bissinger, head coach Gary Gaines asks of his players, “Can you be perfect?”.
Wales are being touted as a team with the conviction to go all the way in Tokyo later this year.
This weekend they come up against their old nemesis, England, in Cardiff at the Dragons Lair, with a track record of 11 unbeaten test matches. But England bring with them newly rediscovered confidence and credentials.
Saturday will provide us with a dress rehearsal for their group-stage fixture at the Rugby World Cup.
What will be of most significance to coaches Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland is how their players handle their respective moments of pressure given this is a World Cup year. Saturday’s match result could paint a significant picture of whether these teams are contenders or pretenders.
Gatland has overseen Wales’s development over the past 12 seasons, an incredible achievement of longevity given the cruel results-driven nature of professional sport. In that time Gatland has got Wales to a World Cup semi-final and has won three Six Nations titles and two grand slams.
However, he has been criticised in the latter years as being an exponent of ‘Warren-ball’, a tactic perhaps crudely associated with having big forwards or backline players constantly running channel ball back at their opponents and continuing the same direction and pattern. It is very low risk and does have the benefit of creating space on the outside channels when done correctly, but at its core it is simplistic, and you need a bit more guile in your tactics to win a World Cup.
While Wales have evolved their playing style and philosophy to be slightly more expansive, their lack of major test match wins points to them still not having a real belief that they can beat the very best the world has to offer in consecutive weeks. Recent wins against a continually fractious Australia and the inconsistent Springboks are commendable but must be seen in the greater context of the overall health of the game in South Africa and particularly Australia compared to Wales.
A run of 11 unbeaten test matches is not a record to be sniffed at, but upon closer inspection you see three scalps missing from their list of conquests, namely the All Blacks, England and, to an extent, Ireland – Wales do have a decent record against the Irish of late with two wins, one draw and a loss, but they haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 1953 and England in the last four years.
If Wales want to be seen as genuine contenders, they need to upset England this weekend and take with them an air of complete confidence to Tokyo later this year. If not, it will just indicate that, yes, Wales on their day can throw up a surprise result but otherwise don’t have the stomach or steel to go all the way.
The English have put in two dominant displays to show their World Cup credentials for all to see. Eddie Jones is now seen as the resurgent savior after a challenging last season whereby his position was routinely called into question. England have found their confidence and are playing the brand of rugby very similar to ‘Warren-ball’. With Manu Tuilagi finally fit, Jones’s team has real strike power across the field to get over the advantage line when defences are up and rushing.
Jones has won two Six Nations titles and boasts a 3-0 series whitewash against Australia, a grand slam and an unbeaten run of 18 matches in his first two seasons, equaling the All Blacks. However, the last 18 months of his tenure have been his most difficult, littered with regular losses and players out due to injury. A dubious call robbed England of a chance to beat the All Blacks last season, but similar calls are going to come at a Rugby World Cup, and how a team deals with them and critical moments of pressure will be the difference between staying another week and packing your bags.
England have rediscovered their mojo, which makes them such a difficult rugby team to play against. There is real belief in the playing group about how they want to play, and there’s a conviction in delivering the game plan. John Mitchell has fixed up the English defensive effort and now use it as a means to attack while defending.
The Roses couldn’t have asked for a better start to their World Cup season, and on Saturday they’ll have an even greater understanding of their playing style and, most crucial for any potential World Cup winner, how they handle pressure in big moments as a team.