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Five-point plan to reinvigorate Warren Gatland’s Wales

Mason Grady/A five-point plan to invigorate Wales
Seven of Mason Grady's 11 caps to date have come from the bench but he starts on Saturday - Getty Images/David Rogers

From a wooden spoon to tackling the world champions. Out of the frying pan of a fraught Six Nations comprising five defeats, Wales step into the fire of a game against the Springboks on Saturday.

The assignment could have been even trickier. It is staged at Twickenham, with the Qatar Airways Cup up for grabs, rather than in Pretoria or Johannesburg. South Africa are missing some big names and beginning a new cycle with different coaches such as Jerry Flannery and Tony Brown. And yet, with Pieter-Steph du Toit captaining an imposing Springboks outfit, Wales fans might feel anxious.

On the contrary, Alex King seems calm and optimistic. In a typically understated tone, the Wales attack coach offers a reminder. His side scored the same number of tries as France and England during the Six Nations; one more than Scotland and four more than Italy. An inexperienced group were punished for lax periods, but King saw enough promise.

After this weekend, Wales travel to Australia. There, they encounter Joe Schmidt’s Wallabies in two Tests before a tour fixture against the Reds in Brisbane. Here is a five-point plan to help them regain some momentum.

1. Be patient and take the pain

“All attack coaches have an idea of how they want to play,” says King. “I suppose that’s in a flow state, where guys have clarity on what they are doing and arrive onto the ball with confidence and timing and it’s all in sync.”

Wales struck upon a snappy, effective template during last year’s World Cup and would have made a semi-final without the line-out wobbles and botched chances that marred their loss to Argentina. A much-changed group for the Six Nations, featuring several rookies, was always going to find it difficult to achieve similar cohesion.

“We understand that Test matches are about winning,” King adds. “We left the World Cup, players retired, others came in. We’ve taken a bit of pain, but those players have five caps each. We can build over the next few years and, by the time we get to the World Cup, those players have 35 or 40 caps in their early 20s. Then it’s a different conversation.”

Flashes of fluency in the loss to France, notably the build-up to the tries finished by Tomos Williams and Joe Roberts, are pinpointed by King as best-practice passages of play that can be built upon. As ever, there is scrutiny over the fly-half role. Sam Costelow is set for a 13th cap on Saturday, meaning it is time for the 23-year-old to assert himself. King has been impressed by the creativity and “rugby IQ” of Ben Thomas, who could feature in Australia at either 10 or 12.

Sam Costelow is due to add to his 13 caps on Saturday
Sam Costelow is due to add to his 13 caps on Saturday - Getty Images/Ian Cook

Jac Morgan’s continued absence, due to a hamstring strain, is a big blow, but Warren Gatland must allow combinations to settle.

2. Running scrum-halves

Tomos Williams’s ankle injury is a significant setback for Wales, because King regards scrum-halves who pose “a constant threat around the fringes,” as a staple of dangerous attacking units. Antoine Dupont’s ability to “get his team out of trouble and onto the front foot” is cited, as is Alex Mitchell’s display in the Premiership final.

“People talk about one or two decisions he might not have got right, but he beat six defenders and scored the winning try,” King says. “He adds so much to that team and to England.” In the absence of Williams, the uncapped Ellis Bevan gets a chance at Twickenham, with Gareth Davies on the bench and Kieran Hardy waiting in the wings.

“It’s the speed that [the best attacking teams] bring to the game and the stress they put on defences with the speed of ball [they get],” King adds. “It’s the nines’ ability to break to the rucks and the multiple runners at the line, asking questions, so you never let the defences recover. A running threat at nine is really, really important and we’re lucky that we’ve got three guys who can do that.”

Scooting and sniping from the base of rucks can nullify aggressive blitz defences, a theory that Wales evidently want to test out against the Springboks.

3. Give it to Mason Grady

In the dying embers of a disappointing Six Nations, Mason Grady provided Wales fans with a reason to be cheerful. Entering the fray for the final half an hour, with Italy leading 18-0, he produced a try-scoring cameo that featured 11 carries for 88 metres.

Aaron Wainwright is a dynamic, keynote carrier, but Grady, who stands 6ft 5in and weighs around 111 kilograms [17st 6lb], should be a strapping midfield focal point too. “Mason’s had a good season and probably had his strongest game against Italy,” King says. “When he touches the ball, things happen. He gets you go-forward, which is crucial in the modern game.”

Grady covers wing and seven of his 11 caps have come from the bench, with the two others being starts at outside centre. He is wearing 12 on Saturday, alongside Owen Watkin. As the spearhead of a direct midfield, Grady needs plenty of touches.

4. Back Cameron Winnett

Cameron Winnett is backed for a "big future" with Wales
Cameron Winnett is backed for a "big future" with Wales - Getty Images/Clive Mason

The poise of Cameron Winnett at full-back was another encouraging aspect of the Six Nations and King suggests the 21-year-old will become a regular; even if the returning Liam Williams is deployed on one wing as an 89-cap safety blanket.

“His positioning in the back-field is very good,” King says of Winnett. “We saw his footwork and his ability to hit the line during the Six Nations. He’s had a taste of it now, with five caps, and it’s important that he pushes on and pushes the other young guys through. I’ve no doubt that he’s got a big future now, which is great for Welsh rugby.

“Liam Williams coming back means they can learn from one another. Liam is probably one of the best attacking full-backs that Wales have ever had. He had a good World Cup and it’s good to bring a little bit of experience back around these young guys who add enthusiasm and freshness and a willingness to jump in and really go for it.”

Winnett developing in tandem with Costelow as a secondary distributor will be vital for Wales’ aim to refine their attack. Josh Hathaway, sparky for Gloucester, is one of the fresher faces and Jacob Beetham begins the summer on the bench. Rio Dyer, committed, athletic and learning all the time, has nailed down one wing role.

5. Conviction with composure

Adaptability comes with experience and Wales appeared tactically rigid at times during the Six Nations. King proposes that a major flaw was inviting opponents to exert defensive pressure.

Without the well-drilled, resourceful Ospreys, who sneaked eighth to make a quarter-final, it would have been a bleak United Rugby Championship season for the regions. Cardiff came 12th, Scarlets 13th and Dragons 15th on the 16-team ladder. Skinnier budgets do not bode well for next year, either. The hope is that individuals can pull together on national service. Wales have been effective maulers of late, but cannot rely on strangling rivals. They need to be bold with ball movement.

“The enthusiasm these young guys bring is infectious,” King finishes. “It bounces off everyone and we’ve got to be positive and jump in. I don’t think we can be timid and dip our toe in the water. We’ve got to understand what’s coming, but you have more fun in life when you really go for it as opposed to being tentative and unsure.

“It’s up to us as coaches to give them the confidence to play, but play with the understanding of what it takes to win Test matches. I can’t wait.”

South Africa v Wales in the Qatar Airways Cup is at 2pm at Twickenham on June 22 as part of a double header with Barbarians v Fiji (5.15pm). Tickets are still available


Teams for Saturday

Wales: C Winnett; L Williams, O Watkin, M Grady, R Dyer; S Costelow, E Bevan; G Thomas, D Lake, K Assiratti, M Screech, B Carter, T Plumtree, J Botham, A Wainwright

Replacements: E Lloyd, K Mathias, H O’Connor, J Ratti, M Martin, G Davies, E James, J Beetham

South Africa: A Fassi; E van der Merwe, J Kriel, A Esterhuizen, M Mapimpi; J Hendrikse, F de Klerk; O Nche, M Marx, V Koch, E Etzebeth, F Mostert, K Smith, P-S du Toit, E Roos

Replacements: B Mbonambi, N Mchunu, F Malherbe, S Moerat, B-J Dixon, G Williams, S Feinberg-Mngomezulu, D de Allende