Where now for woeful Wales?
December 11, 2012
Mike Phillips reflects on Wales's defeat to Australia © PA Photos
It is time, perhaps, to investigate what else they've got at the training facility in Poland. Cryogenic chambers we know about, but it seems increasingly likely that they've also got some sort of reversible through-the-looking-glass mechanism.
In the summer of 2011 Wales went to Poland as a mediocre international team, not generally a pushover but hopelessly lacking in creativity - not least because of deficiencies at half-back - and no threat to really good teams. After Poland they produced their best ever World Cup performance and won a Grand Slam.
Then, in the autumn of 2012, they went to Poland again. What returned was a mediocre ….you get the general picture, assuming that after the last few weeks you have not decided to spend the rest of the year looking away.
We might of course utter a few complaints about rugby taking a snapshot of the world standings and making its World Cup draw on that basis little more than a quarter of the way through the four year cycle between tournaments. Is rugby really so slow-witted that it has to be setting stuff in stone at a point when other sports are still worrying about stadium completion times?
It also seems odd that weightings appear to take no account of the status of matches. Wales did lose seven matches in 2012, but it is worth remembering that they were all, in effect, friendlies (making up a trophy and naming it after somebody, whether as symbolically deserving as James Bevan or as forelock-tuggingly ridiculous as Prince William, does not change this). Wales played five competitive matches this year and won the lot, but at the end had plunged down the rankings.
But those are the rules. Wales knew them as well as everybody else, and should certainly have been well aware of the potential consequences once the Argentina match had been lost. The crash into level three of the seedings came in spite of getting a free pass for the New Zealand game - such a foregone conclusion according to the rankings model that a 23-point home defeat did not make even one hundredth of a point's difference to either team's rating. Being drawn against the team that always beats them and the hosts was a suitable outcome, even if it allowed WRU boss Roger Lewis one of the better jokes of the year - his offer to stage the England match at the Millennium.
And let's, while we're being cheerful, throw in performances so far in the Heineken Cup. There have been years before - all, it might be noted, since regional franchises replaced the supposedly discredited club model - when Welsh representatives have failed to make the playoffs , but none where that absence has been all but sealed by the halfway stage of the pool matches. The combined record is one win from nine matches, with only the Ospreys retaining even vestigial hopes of progression. And while experience counsels wariness before writing off the Ospreys in the PRO12, in the Heineken it does the opposite.
So there is plenty for the new Professional Regional Game Board to consider when it meets for the first time this month. Not least of the quandaries facing them will be the contrast with the first half of 2012, which brought the Grand Slam and the Ospreys remarkable PRO12 victory in Dublin, courtesy of Shane Williams' final act in serious rugby and nerveless marksmanship by Dan Biggar.
So what went wrong? One answer comes from a coach operating in a different sport in South Wales - Michael Laudrup at Swansea City. He argues that his players, confronted with the expensively assembled squads which proliferate in the Premier League, must operate at 100 per cent every week to be competitive. Drop to 90 per cent and you lose. And no, this isn't some superficial point about trying harder. It is about mental sharpness, confidence, preparation and everything else that goes into peak performance - essentially the same argument Stuart Lancaster uses when he talks about top class rugby being 'a game of narrow margins'.
Wales weren't hugely dominant grand slammers, but they were the best team, distinguished by the ability to do what it took to close out tight contests. Compare and contrast with those four excruciating narrow defeats by Australia, never mind the rather more conclusive losses to Argentina and Samoa. It isn't simply a matter of overwhelming southern superiority. If it were Australia would hardly have been slaughtered by France, or Argentina by Ireland. But a few per cent seems to go missing against the southern nations. It is hardly logical that Wales should have a worse recent record against them than Scotland.
Rob Howley makes an easy scapegoat, and I'll admit to unease at a national coach - interim or not - with no prior head coach experience. But the last, hideously predictable, defeat by Australia showed that teams prepared by Warren Gatland can lose just as agonisingly as those coached by Howley.
Injuries, of course, do not help. If there are two players you would chose not to lose for an entire autumn series, they are Adam Jones and Dan Lydiate. Add in an uncanny series of injuries to locks and it is little wonder that the pack was not quite itself. But Australia, whose playing base is certainly no greater, also had several key men missing and, that French debacle apart, scarcely missed a beat.
Those problems with the pack exacerbated existing problems at half-back. Mike Phillips has reverted to his old 'take a look, take a step, pass if nothing else is on' routine, putting further pressure on the fraying confidence of Rhys Priestland. Poor decision-making at half-back creates a knock-on effect (sometimes literally) down a threequarter line built for power rather than dexterity.
With Priestland's injury proving serious, we could see the rapid elevation of Rhys Patchell. His icily calm performance, not least in that truly scary period when he was denied the services of a specialist scrum-half, for the 14-man Blues against Montpellier was one of the saving graces of an otherwise grim Heineken weekend. But should he or the effervescent Matthew Morgan find themselves suddenly fitted out for a red No.10 shirt come early February, can we all agree - for their sake, ours and most of all for the longer-term health of Welsh rugby - to show some restraint in assessing their performances. The odds are against their being either the next Barry John or a national embarrassment, but also sadly in favour of debate couched in terms of one or both views.
So on the half-full, half-empty scale used in this space before, what is the state of Wales's glass as 2012 ends? Close to full of Felinfoel or SA, according to regional taste, last May, it now offers only the dregs of low alcohol lager. But let's not be wholly downhearted. Whatever else the World Cup draw did for Wales, at least it kept them away from Samoa.
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