Wales entered the 2013 Six Nations as the reigning champions, but on a run of eight consecutive losses.
They were also without head coach, Warren Gatland, swanning around on Lions duties. Taking control of the reins in his absence was Rob Howley: great player, nice enough bloke, but – without Gatland – would he be able to cut it as head honcho for the Six Nations?
The omens weren’t good.
A loss in the opening autumn fixture, against the streetwise Pumas, was a performance riddled with mixed messages, bizarre selections (Turnbull over Tipuric and Rees above Hibbard) and a couple of injuries to senior players.
Howley’s squad selection was pretty much on the ball: deadwood like McCusker was cut; a recall for Lee Byrne; a first call-up for the exciting Eli Walker, as well as a place for the usual suspects. And Andrew Coombs.
Coombs was an odd one. Here was a player who was late to the professional game, a sometime blindside flanker or occasional lock for the Dragons, an obvious hard worker, but not a player who had made even enough of an impression that his regional supporters were talking up his chances.
Olly Kohn, all 34 stone of him, was also a late addition to the squad after the power of Twitter revealed that, yes, his Nan had been to Porthcawl once.
The first half performance was anaemic; one shorn of any test match intensity. The resulting comeback was little consolation to Welsh fans, serving only as a reminder of how we can play a bit, but how we’re also often wasteful – getting into good field position yet failing to score between the 58th and 75th minute.
Individually, it was a day to forget with only the ever-consistent Halfpenny and Faletau rising above the mediocre. Of bigger concern, perhaps, was how porous Wales’ defence had been.
Up to and including this match, in the 8 test matches since their Grandslam win versus France the previous season (and not including the 2nd XV v Barbarians chuckabout), they had conceded 201 points: an average of over 25 points per match. Far too high to be serious contenders in test match rugby.
The knives were out for each and every member of the coaching staff as much as they were for the players.
Only three changes were made to the starting line up for the trip to Paris: the muscular Richard Hibbard (in his intentions and performance, if not his appearance), Justin Tipuric at openside and, about thirty minutes before the team was announced, Ryan Jones to the blindside and captaincy.
Paris isn’t the best place to go at the best of times, even if the French were also coming off a disappointing defeat in their opener to Italy.
In the first half, Wales managed to take il vent out of the French sails by being physical and organised in defence – the very same defence which had been so porous and passive in the past five matches. The only moments of danger came from Bastereaud running back against the grain on a couple of occasions and Huget ignoring arguably the best finisher to his right when only five metres from the line.
The second half continued in the same vein and Wales – led by Ryan Jones having one of those days where he’s a ball magnet – grew just enough to go into the final quarter tied at 6 – 6. Last season’s Six Nations success was, largely, due to the fact that Wales were able to score points and concede little late in the game. The same personnel managed to find the right amount of territory to put themselves in with every chance here.
With George North taking an inside ball off Dan Biggar, Wales managed to break the gain line, then after a couple of quick recycles and pick-and-go apiece from Ian Evans and Ken Owens, some room appeared on the left. Lloyd Williams’ pass landed about at the toes of Biggar who picked up, looked, then put in a deftly weighted chip over the onrushing French defence to sit up into the hands of North who kept his frame infield to dot down in the corner. A touchline conversion later and it was game over. A late Halfpenny penalty gave Wales their biggest win in Paris since 1975.
But it was a bit rubbish, wasn’t it? How bad were France?
But it was a win. Ryan Jones called it “a monkey off our backs.”
In Part 2, coming soon to an AoD ATL near you, yosoy continues his mission to forensically out-Rowntree Rowntree, surely guaranteeing his spot as Lions forensic forwards coach