Time for optimism or pessimism?
January 24, 2012
Will it be all smiles for Jamie Roberts and Wales come the end of the Six Nations? © Getty Images
Half-empty or half-full? The line-up in the eternal dialectic over the state of Welsh rugby's metaphorical pint of bitter is a matter of temperament as much as logic and, in spite of stereotypes about Celtic pessimism, with as many participants prone to irrational exuberance as there are prophets of doom.
Still, those of us who might be classified as floating voters in this contest go into the 2012 Six Nations feeling there are currently more reasons to be cheerless. It did not take long for the mood engendered by the World Cup and the bright start to the Heineken Cup to fizzle out.
Most obvious of the downers is the injury list. Neither first-choice lock will be playing, Jamie Roberts will be at best a late arrival and there are doubts at the time of writing over Gethin Jenkins, Rhys Priestland and Dan Lydiate.
Which is not to say that the possible alternatives are inadequate. The loss of Roberts may mean another try at fitting a footballing second-five-type centre into the Welsh midfield while Bradley Davies appeared to lose his place more because of the sharp advance - and extra options offered - by Luke Charteris than anything much he himself had done wrong. Ryan Jones is a pretty decent back row deputy.
But there will inevitably be a loss of the team chemistry built during the World Cup, and some parts are less replaceable than others. Finding two locks is considerably more than twice as difficult as replacing one and Jenkins' distinctive range of qualities make his a particularly hard act to replicate. Priestland's positioning, distribution and decision-making were probably the single most significant element in transforming the plodding performers of the 2011 Six Nations into the vibrant mob who brightened up the World Cup.
And then there is the disappointment of the Heineken Cup, where early promise fizzled in a manner reminiscent of 2001, the year that made the replacement of clubs by regional franchises all but inevitable. Failure then consisted of having two teams reach the quarter-finals before going down in away ties. A decade on that would look like resounding success. Using the Heineken as a measure, the case for the regional set-up remains, at best, not proven.
Nor is there much sign of a World Cup effect in their crowds, even if the understandable anger of many Blues fans at being uprooted from the traditional city centre location to rattle as lodgers around Cardiff City Stadium remains a strong contributory factor.
The regions also had reason to curse the Welsh Rugby Union for shoehorning the money-raising exercise against Australia into the pre-Christmas programme. It meant that their best players went into the pivotal home and away rounds of the Heineken on the back of an international rather than a rest. Of course Ospreys might easily have lost twice to Saracens and Scarlets conceded a double to Munster whatever had happened the previous weekend, but it certainly did not help consolidate either team's promising start.
And then there is the evidence of the Australia match itself. Not for the first time, the WRU had reason to feel profoundly grateful to Shane Williams. His retirement gave the event a purpose, and his dramatic final try created a mood that largely obscured a dismal Welsh display.
A second defeat in quick succession by the Wallabies raises the question of how good, irrespective of the sparkle of the middle weeks of the World Cup, Wales really are. Of course Wales don't have to play Australia or South Africa in the Six Nations and it is encouraging that the best performances during the World Cup were against Ireland and, for the 20 minutes it remained a normal match, France.
But how far anything from the World Cup will translate, given the months in between and the number of injuries, is questionable. Wales as a whole faces what might be termed the Jamie Roberts Question - can performances in big southern hemisphere-hosted events be matched in the year-to-year events back home?
And as a final count in the half-empty case, there is a fixture list that sends Wales off to Dublin, the toughest option available from this season's dance card, on the opening weekend. This is of course a team Wales have beaten twice in the last 12 months, but that will doubtless serve only to motivate. And Ireland, even without Brian O'Driscoll, remain the most settled and tested combination in the tournament. Their players have just finished beating the bejasus out of the rest of Europe in the Heineken to the extent that - always a sign that Celts are getting something right - the English clubs have started bleating about changing the rules of the competition.
So, what weighs on the half-full side? The retention of a coaching team that might easily have been lost, a fresh bout of Polish-located bonding and the fact that this group really did offer something fresh and inspiring on their last competitive outing. There are individuals in terrific form. Sam Warburton's display in the Heineken Cup against London Irish spoke of a player who has come back from the sort of devastating disappointment that might depress an entire career determined to reach fresh heights of effectiveness and authority. Leigh Halfpenny is quite possibly the best full-back and the best wing available to Wales at the moment while Lydiate is turning himself into a modern version of his 1970s counterpart Dai Morris - a back rower whose visibility to spectators is in inverse proportion to the awareness of thwarted opponents, and whose unobtrusiveness owes much to the fact that he almost invariably does the right thing in the right place at the right time.
There is further talent on the rise. Lloyd Williams is a real scrum-half alternative to Mike Phillips, Alex Cuthbert would offer an alternative in type and quality should George North ever fall off the moving bicycle he appears to be trying to mount when he sidesteps and Ashley Beck gives Ospreys fans something to smile about as they sit gibbering in darkened rooms. Now, if we can find some props…..
And should Wales win in Dublin, real possibilities loom. Three of the four subsequent fixtures would be at home, with the fourth away to the wholly unpredictable English (not a form of words you see very often, so make the most of it) at Twickenham.
At the very least, it should not be dull. And that by itself would represent a huge improvement over last season.
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