Hope springs eternal
June 25, 2012
Wales' Bradley Davies reflects on one of three near misses his side suffered on their tour of Australia © Getty Images
'I can stand the despair - it's the hope that's intolerable'. John Cleese's thwarted headmaster in the 1986 film Clockwise arguably touched upon a fundamental truth about life. He certainly came up, 26 years before the event, with the perfect summation of Welsh feelings about the just concluded three-match series against Australia.
There are, as Ireland's ghastly experience in the match that followed on immediately afterwards on Saturday, worse things than losing consecutive Test matches to the same opponent by a single score. Memories of beatings comparable to the one inflicted on Brian O'Driscoll's men in Hamilton being routine occurrences whenever Wales crossed the equator are still recent enough to be vividly painful.
And at the end of a season that stretches back the best part of a year, it is also worth remembering that Wales had considerably more ups than downs. Offered fourth place in the World Cup and a Grand Slam this time last year, Welsh fans would undoubtedly have accepted with alacrity, while wondering what sort of parallel universe they had wandered into.
They might not, though, have been quite so keen to sign up for five defeats by Australia. This has to be some sort of record, albeit one too dispiriting to inspire a Statsguru search for clarification.
It is one thing, after all, to be routinely dumped upon by somebody manifestly superior - as was Wales's lot against England a decade ago and has been against New Zealand since 1980. It is another when it is an opponent you reckon yourself to have a shot at - particularly when an average margin of four points per match across those five defeats shows that belief to be reasonably well-founded.
Coming on top of a Grand Slam won more by ability to seize chances when they arose and hold off opponents in a tight finish than by overwhelming superiority, it seemed to mark a regression. The team that won the Grand Slam because it knew how to win the close ones suddenly lost that essential knack.
This was never more evident than in the final minutes of the second Test. Far from showing the clinical qualities with which by that time Sky Sports' commentator had become totally obsessed, the Wallabies showed every sign of coming apart - making elementary mistakes that included their coaching team leaving Berrick Barnes to take a vital penalty when it was obvious that he was injured. But still Wales could not put them away, even when that demanded nothing more complex than holding on to possession and running down the clock.
Blown line-outs, tactical kicks that set up opposing counterattacks and iffy re-starts - often leading to a score being conceded within a minute or two of a Welsh try or penalty - also represented a recurrence of ingrained faults there was reason to hope had been eliminated.
But it was, after all, Australia. They may be the southern giant Wales always reckons to have a hope of toppling, but they're also the team who consistently make smarter, more effective use of fairly limited resources than anybody else in world rugby.
They also have genuine quality in a smart, aggressive back row and superb half-backs. Had Will Genia and Berrick Barnes swapped with Mike Phillips and Rhys Priestland, the result of the series would probably have been very different.
Disappointing as it is for a country with an incomparable history of half-back play, this is no longer a Welsh strength. Phillips's strengths are well-established, but so too are his limitations as a tactician and distributor. At least, though, Wales had a bench warmer offering the alternative of quick hands and thought in Rhys Webb.
Priestland has risen and fallen dramatically in a year, emerging to startling effect at the World Cup before suffering a loss of form and confidence during the Six Nations that deepened in Australia. Warren Gatland and Rob Howley clearly believe in him and have backed him to come through his personal recession.
That's to their credit, but at the same time Howley painted himself into a corner, particularly given his apparent lack of faith in James Hook, when the in-form Dan Biggar was one of the last group dropped from the tour party. It meant that Priestland, while struggling for most of the series, played all but the final 11 minutes of the three matches.
We can hope that Sir Clive Woodward, whose record as a national coach still compels the utmost respect, is right when he suggests that this series of near-misses does represent progress for a developing time, and will prove to be a springboard. At the moment it still feels more like continuously banging one's head against the ceiling.
But it would also be a mistake to end this year on too negative a note. There were the World Cup victory over Ireland, the Grand Slam and the Shane Williams farewell tour - whose final significant moment enabled Biggar's touchline conversion to clinch the Ospreys' RaboDirect Pro 12 title away to Leinster, who must now be as wary of Steve Tandy's revitalised team as Wales are of Australia.
Several players - Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton - turned serious promise into world-class achievement, with Alex Cuthbert not far behind and Ashley Beck offering early signs of similar accomplishment. At the same time came were reminders of the importance of veterans. Wales's diminishing number of chapel goers continue to offer heartfelt prayers for the fitness and form of Adam Jones while Ryan Jones, whose try in Sydney was a richly-deserved coda to another fine display, has some claim to be regarded as Wales'a player of 2012 so far. Somebody usually goes on the Lions tour without being a regular first-choice and Ryan's ability to play a range of positions, utter selflessness and physical commitment should give him a very good shot if he maintains his current form into 2013.
A Six Nations defence and a Lions tour - that should be a year to look forward to. The only problem is that before we get there Wales have to play Australia again, on December 1. A sixth meeting in 14 months really does seem a bit much, particularly since it is the ever-contentious fourth match of the autumn window. Still, hope springs eternal….
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