by Tom Pritchard
WALES will have learned a lot after their Six Nations record second-half comeback against France on Friday, but what are the key takeaways ahead of Italy on Saturday?
A brace of tries from wing George North, after scrum-half Tomos Williams had got Wales on the board sent Warren Gatland’s men on their way to a memorable victory at the Stade de France.
Wales’ record-breaking comeback shows mental strength
A lot has been said about how France let their lead slip after the break, capitulating in French-like fashion, and that’s true to a certain extent; however you have to give some credit to Wales.
The first half showing was up there with one of the worst in the Gatland era, and the team showed a lot of resilience to come out fighting after their half-time oranges.
Wales were second best in every department in the first half, other than perhaps the scrum, nothing was going right for the three-time Grand Slam champions.
They stuck to the task and were able to grind their way back into the game, courtesy of some questionable decision-making from Les Blues, but they deserve some kudos for showing the mental fortitude that is required to overturn an unfavourable scoreline on a soaking wet night in Saint Denis, in front of a passionate French crowd.
Despite conceding 33 points against Scotland at Murrayfield, Italy’s defence, particularly in phase play, was resolute for large chunks of the game.
Moments of magic from players like Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg accounted for three of the five tries, and there will be periods where Wales will have to settle for going through the phases.
They’ll be looking to transfer the kind of resolve they showed on Friday night into Saturday’s game at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
Differences between Anscombe and Biggar laid bare
It’s fair to say that outside-half Gareth Anscombe didn’t have his best appearance in a Wales jersey on Friday.
The Cardiff Blues stand-off had an error-strewn first 40 minutes, and wasn’t able to offer the kind of control that was required in the conditions.
Many would have expected the experienced Dan Biggar to replace him for the second half, but Gatland showed his faith in Anscombe, with Biggar replacing the mercurial Liam Williams on the hour mark.
The Northampton Saints outside-half showed his big game temperament, nailing a penalty to give Wales the lead shortly after coming on.
The 28-year-old’s ability to remain calm under pressure, and more often than not make the right decisions at key moments played a big part in Wales edging out a France side which, in the second half, were the antithesis of Biggar and Wales.
Gatland, who will stand down as Wales head coach following the conclusion of the 2019 World Cup, will have a decision to make ahead of Saturday’s trip to Rome: does he want the creativity and playmaking abilities that Anscombe brings, or the calm-headed and patient approach that Biggar has displayed on so many occasions.
Put simply, it comes down to what kind of challenge he is expecting up front. If Wales are securing front-foot ball and winning the physical battle, you definitely want Anscombe pulling the strings behind the scrum.
However, if gain line success is hard to come by, a player like Biggar – capped 66 times by his country – has the ability to negate the shortcomings up front and put his team in good attacking positions down-field.
Combative back-row deal with jumbo French pack
The pack that France head coach Jacques Brunel selected provoked a lot of discussion pre-match, and there were question marks around whether Wales would be able to cope with the power up front.
Les Blues had some joy in this area in the first half, punching holes and putting Wales on the back-foot, however their response after the break was mightily impressive.
The back-row of Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty were at their confrontational best, in the face of powerful French forwards like Uini Atonio, Paul Willemse and Louis Picamoles.
Gatland has hinted that he will use the eight replacements from Friday for the game against Conor O’Shea’s Italy, meaning the likes of Aaron Wainwright and Thomas Young could feature in Rome.
While it’s difficult to know if the bar has been set in terms of a back-row performance, if those who take to the pitch wearing 6, 7 and 8 on Saturday are able to usurp the level that was reached in Paris, Wales will be well on their way to securing a second victory in this year’s Championship.
You feel that if Wales are able to come out of a battle with a heavyweight French pack with more positives than negatives, they should be in good stead for the challenges that lie ahead, starting with the game against the Azzurri this Saturday.