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Why the performance of one Welsh player amid 'carnage' of defeat to world under-20 champions was remarkable

Wales Online logo Wales Online 09/06/2019 Mark Orders
a group of people posing for the camera: 08.06.19 of Wales U20 v France U20 - World Rugby Under 20 Championship - 
Wales U20 players line up for the national anthem. © David GIbson/Huw Evans Agency 08.06.19 of Wales U20 v France U20 - World Rugby Under 20 Championship - Wales U20 players line up for the national anthem.

There are plenty of sports coaches the world over who offer the view that losing provides the best learning experience.

If that is the case, then the Wales youngsters who faced France at the World Rugby U20 Championship may come to view Saturday’s sobering setback in Rosario as being hugely important to their careers.  

Gareth Williams’ side were well and truly second best at the Racecourse Stadium.

They gave their all but found it hard to contain a devastating offloading game from an outstanding French side who boasted power, skill and pace.

That said, it wasn’t all bleak for the Welsh team, with a few emerging from the beating heavily in credit.

MARK ORDERS assesses the talking points from a match that dashed Wales’ hopes of topping Pool A...

THE CENTRE WHO KEPT SLAMMING THE DOOR SHUT

a man with a football ball: Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler gets to grips with Louis Carbonel © Getty Images Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler gets to grips with Louis Carbonel

When you wear orange boots and pick out Sonny Bill Williams as your role model, the expectation is that you will attract a certain level of attention.

Indeed, with such ultra-distinctive footwear maybe the pilots of passing planes have glanced down and noticed 19-year-old Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler, possibly swerving as they did so.

He has previously said: “Sonny Bill Williams is a massive role model.

“He’s a superstar and his offloads are insane, so he’s someone I’ve always looked up to.

“I love to offload as well and I really enjoy getting my hands through the tackler and keeping the ball alive.”

But there’s steel to go with the swagger.

Amid the carnage that saw Wales miss 40 tackles — that isn’t a misprint — in Saturday's encounter with France, Thomas-Wheeler returned a clean defensive sheet: 18 hits attempted, not a single one missed.

a hand holding a football ball: Sonny Bill Williams sends the ball out in training © New Zealand Herald Sonny Bill Williams sends the ball out in training

One of his interventions was especially memorable, seeing him halt the dangerous Donovan Taofifenua. Over the whole game, the wing made 150 metres with ball in hand. He put in 15 passes and made 20 runs, beating seven Wales defenders and offloading with extraordinary skill, looking a special player in the making. 

But Thomas-Wheeler caught up with the French lad to emphatic effect when he swooped like a fighter plane on the 5ft 7in, 12st 4lb Clermont Auvergne player, driving him across the pitch and to the floor.

Throughout, the former Neath Schools and Trebanos centre was in full Alamo mode.

No player has made more tackles in the competition over the first two rounds, with TTW putting in 33 hits and missing just one.

The Ospreys man also showed up in attack against France, with the highlight being a break up the middle which helped set up the try that had put Wales in front early on.

It is still early days and he has plenty to learn, but when a player performs as strongly as he did in a losing cause, it points to a certain level of character.

Assuredly, it augurs well. It's no exaggeration to label his performance remarkable.

THE BACK ROW ALSO FRONTED UP

a close up of a man: Iestyn Rees had a fine game for Wales © Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency Iestyn Rees had a fine game for Wales

Between them, Iestyn Rees, Tommy Reffell and Jac Morgan were responsible for six turnovers and 42 tackles.

Reffell made 16 of those hits and was never less than combative, while Morgan was also resolute and the pair proved adept at stealing ball, whether through ripping it or at rucks.

At one point France loose-head Jean-Baptiste Gros found himself hemmed in by Morgan, Reffell and Dewi Lake. It must have been akin to entering the Bermuda Triangle. The turnover duly came, with Reffell emerging with the ball.

Rees got better the longer the game went on. 

Like Morgan, he is part of the Scarlets academy and looks a bright prospect.

He made a significant impression on France’s No. 8 Jordan Joseph, voted breakthrough player of this tournament last year, by smashing him back five metres and lifting the outstanding blue-shirted 18-year-old off his feet as he did so.

If that was a highlight from him, there was also a line-out steal near his own line, strong work at the breakdown and a couple of nice carries: indeed, the Ysgol Bro Dinefwr product was the only Welsh forward to return double figures for metres made with ball in hand.

a person wearing a red shirt: Tommy Reffell of Wales wins a line-out © David GIbson/Huw Evans Agency Tommy Reffell of Wales wins a line-out

He did miss a few tackles, while Morgan found it hard to achieve go-forward and there was little ball on offer for Reffell to carry.

But the pluses outweighed the minuses for all three of them.

FRENCH VA VA VOOM

When the hooker in a rugby team makes four clean breaks and 106 metres with ball in hand, sets up a try, passes the ball nine times and puts in a couple of offloads, there’s a fair chance something special is going on.

And there was.

The No. 2 in question for France, Rayne Barka, had an extraordinary game and so did wing Donovan Taofifenua, while fly-half Louis Carbonel and back rowers Matthias Haddad and Jordan Joseph weren’t too shabby, either. 

The boys in blue were a joy to watch at times.

There were mistakes — they didn’t always cherish possession and their line-out was unreliable — but some of the passing and offloading from forwards and backs would have received a quality-control stamp from vintage French sides of the 1960s and early 1970s.  

They made 17 clean breaks compared to their opponents' six and ran 809 metres with ball in hand.

But one stat more than any other pointed to the difference in the way the two sides played the game.  

France unleashed 23 offloads while Wales managed one.

The players in red would think they had halted moves, only for the ball to be transferred adeptly out of tackles, meaning the threats kept coming and Wales weren’t allowed a second to relax.

There was also power from the forwards and resolve in defence, with a 92 percent tackle success rate.

The Top 14 hasn’t fully had the chance to do its worst to this lot.

But on this evidence, raw talent is alive and kicking in France.  

Va va voom, indeed.

WALES DIDN’T HELP THEMSELVES

a group of football players on a field: Wales players look dejected © Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency Wales players look dejected

If Wales’ effort against Argentina in the first round of matches had been encouraging, they took a significant step back against France.

Their line-out was all over place, with five out of 10 throws being picked off, and the scrum was second best.

Their kicking game was also poor at times, they lacked spark and their horrendous missed-tackle count of 40 followed the 32 they missed against Argentina.

They all tried hard, but, really, that’s a minimum requirement for those who want to go places in the game: a bit like reading a number plate from 20 metres ahead of a driving test. It’s expected that most people will do it.

One game proves only so much and Wales will hope for a measure of redemption against Fiji on Wednesday.

They are unlikely to meet too many sides as good as France but there is scope for marked improvement.

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