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FEATURE The cavalry will soon return but Wales need to end grim streak

The cavalry will soon return but Wales need to end grim streak
4 months ago

The spoon-bending illusionist Uri Geller once offered his services to Newcastle United football club as a man who knew how to end a difficult run.

Against the odds, the Magpies subsequently defeated Arsenal to break a prolonged winless sequence in London.

“They had not won in 29 games and two plus nine is 11,” a more than pleased Geller later said. “While they were scoring the winning goals, I was running round the outside of the ground 11 times to lift the hoodoo. I arrived late and had no ticket. But the moment I got out of the car and touched the Highbury Stadium, Ray Parlour was sent off.”

Possible inspiration for Warren Gatland as he tries to end a grim streak at home for Wales in the Six Nations?  OK, perhaps not, but the Red Dragons need something out of the ordinary to happen after five championship defeats on the bounce in Cardiff, the worst run in front of their own supporters since the competition was expanded in 2000.

Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland has presided over seven defeats in eight Six Nations matches since returning to the Wales job (Photo Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Anoraks will delight in pointing out that the bleak statistics do not end there. Wales have lost 10 out of their last 11 Six Nations games, a tale of woe right down there with events that played out during the dark days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Welsh teams hammered by departures to rugby league managed just one success in 13 Five Nations battles.

Things reached such a low that when asked for a comment amid allegations of drug taking in the sport, the Welsh Rugby Union’s then-secretary Dennis Evans replied: “If you were looking for indications in recent years of performance enhancement, I would not think Welsh rugby was the natural starting point.”

All so, so bleak, but, statistically, the Wales of modern times are pushing the boys of 35 or so years ago close when it comes to posting runs that no-one wants to be associated with. None of which Gatland will want his players to read about or hear.

The pro teams in Wales have been treading water, some more ably than others, for several seasons: Gatland would have known as much when he took the Wales job for a second time. He didn’t have to sign up for term number two.

But, deep down, the New Zealander will know such details will be increasingly mentioned the longer his side’s struggles for results persist.

Of course, his is a difficult job. The talent development pipeline in Welsh rugby has been stuttering for too long and the regions are once again in supposedly reset mode. Some hope that this time a way forward for the professional sides may eventually open up, with finances reshaped and young players benefitting from extra exposure, but plenty will counsel caution. Like AJP Taylor on the 1848 revolutions, the game on the western side of the River Severn is not unfamiliar with turning points that fail to turn.  Let’s see what the coming seasons bring on that front, but maybe it’s wise not to expect too much.

Was Gatland wise to talk about the regions before the Ireland game? He will think it was fair to do so, and of course no national coach operates in isolation. But the pro teams in Wales have been treading water, some more ably than others, for several seasons: Gatland would have known as much when he took the Wales job for a second time. He didn’t have to sign up for term number two.

He will know as well as anyone that every coach has to make the best of the unique circumstances the present themselves to him. It has always been that way, and always will be. His problem is that all the experience he has seen leave the stage has left him short of figures to assist in the development of youngsters and help a young side transition. The likes of Dan Biggar, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi, Leigh Halfpenny and Ken Owens weren’t just superb players for their country. They also made others around them play better.

Taulupe Faletau
Wales have missed the experience of Taulupe Faletau, with the No.8 still recovering from a broken arm (Photo Damien Meye/AFP via Getty Images)

That said, all isn’t lost. Gareth Anscombe, Taulupe Faletau, Tomas Francis and Liam Williams could potentially still return to the fold and offer Gatland a lot. Admittedly, all are the wrong side of 30, but Test rugby is about balancing results with development, and Wales would benefit from having an infusion of experience for their tour to Australia this summer.

How much could McKenzie Martin learn from Faletau, for instance, and how much would Ioan Lloyd and Sam Costelow gain from working alongside the ice-cool and streetwise Anscombe?

How much does the Welsh scrum need an experienced tighthead anchor? Answer: a lot and then a bit more. If someone in the Wales camp hasn’t already been on the phone to Provence to sound out Francis about his availability for the tour or for next season, then they should have been. The man is only 31, a relative babe in arms compared to some who have propped for Wales in the past, including 1970s great Charlie Faulkner, who made his Test debut a month shy of his 34th birthday.   

France still have excellent players, among them star backs such as Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos and Gael Fickou, while they have a front row that could shunt a state-of-the-art tank into reverse, plus a frightening array of options at lock and loose forwards who can create as well as obliterate.

The point is experience counts and the Wales class of 2024 could do with more of it. Dewi Lake and Jac Morgan are also to come back into the set-up after recovering from injuries, while two other long-term casualties, Taine Plumtree and Christ Tshiunza, will further improve Gatland’s options.

It might be wise to keep tabs on Dragons No.6 Ryan Woodman, too. At 6ft 5in and 16st 11lb, with a big work-rate and the ability to poach opposition ball at the breakdown, he is a young player with potential. Former Wales U20 coach Byron Hayward certainly thought so, rating him so highly he said he would “stick my life” on Woodman playing for Wales at the 2027 World Cup. When he returns from injury, expect the Newport-born player to start making serious progress.

First things first, and Wales still have two Six Nations games to play in this campaign, starting with France in Cardiff on Sunday. Les Bleus are, of course, without Antoine Dupont. How much are they missing him? As Wellington said of Napoleon: “His presence on the field made the difference of 40,000 men.” Doubtless, France coach Fabien Galthie has had similar thoughts over the past month about Dupont, who is unavailable as he pursues his ambition to play sevens at this summer’s Paris Olympics.

Tadhg Beirne
Wales showed plenty of spirit but still suffered a chastening defeat by Ireland in Dublin (Photo Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

France still have excellent players, among them star backs such as Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos and Gael Fickou, while they have a front row that could shunt a state-of-the-art tank into reverse, plus a frightening array of options at lock and loose forwards who can create as well as obliterate.

But they have looked a different team without their absent No. 9. At times it’s been like Gotham City without Batman, Sherwood Forest minus Robin Hood or 221B Baker Street without the erudite chap who smokes a pipe and wears a deerstalker hat. Things just haven’t been the same.

That doesn’t mean the farm should be bet on Wales. To stand a chance, they have to significantly up their performance level. They will need to stand up to France’s scrum, sharpen a lineout that is statistically the worst-performing in this Six Nations and improve their attacking game.

It’s Wales who need a kick-start in this championship. They have spent too long on rugby’s hard shoulder. It’s time to start motoring again.

They can look dangerous when matches become loose, but no team should rely too much on games descending into chaos. Wales need a better attacking structure, with pace, power, accurate passing, forwards who look comfortable with ball in hand, decoys, deception, variety and runners either side of the man in possession. On the evidence against Ireland last time out, maybe we shouldn’t expect miracles in the short term.

One other thing: it wouldn’t hurt if Gatland’s team remembered the art of applying scoreboard pressure. In this tournament, England have banked 27 points by kicking penalties, Scotland 24 points, France 15, Italy nine and Ireland six, while Wales have harvested exactly nothing from the tee outside of conversions.

To be precise, they haven’t scored with a penalty in a Test since the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina in October, fully 299 minutes of rugby ago. It might be understandable if they had a gilt-edged lineout in place to take full advantage of catch-and-drive opportunities, but their set-piece can often seem about as reliable as the battered old Chevette with alternator problems that once passed for this writer’s mode of transport: if the lights weren’t cutting out, what should have been the simple challenge of accelerating would stubbornly prove beyond it. Rust-ridden and ancient, it seemed to have made up its mind that motoring at 20mph in Wales was a good thing long before Mark Drakeford and his Welsh Assembly pals got there.

But it’s Wales who need a kick-start in this championship. They have spent too long on rugby’s hard shoulder. It’s time to start motoring again.

Sunnier times ahead? Possible Wales XV to face Australia this summer

Liam Williams; Mason Grady, George North, Nick Tompkins, Rio Dyer; Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Gareth Thomas, Dewi Lake, Tomas Francis, Dafydd Jenkins, Will Rowlands, Aaron Wainwright, Jac Morgan, Taulupe Faletau.

Comments

2 Comments
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Darren 135 days ago

I’m a huge supporter of Gats , but the likes of Rhys Carre , form prop in Wales , who has only 20 caps will be lost to Wales when moves to Saracens next year ..how can a WRU with no money insist to play for your country, you must play for a Welsh Region ,even though financially they can’t afford it .?

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Neil 135 days ago

Brilliant article with only a deft touch of dryness! Da iawn to you …..🤓

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