Six Nations Preview Part 1: Wales

Rugby Union - Dove Men Series - Wales v Tonga - Millennium Stadium


The build up to this year’s Six Nations has been pretty muted for some.  The Tournament billed as the “Greatest Show on Earth” in some quarters doesn’t seem to have the same elan it once had.  Many of the supporters of the Pro Game in Wales see the primacy of the National Team, the strict terms of the Rugby Services Agreement, where Team Wales gets more and more access to the players than ever before, as a source of real concern.

The four Pro Teams have invested quite heavily in producing the players that have brought Warren Gatland limited success.  At the same time, some of these players have left the game for pastures new, others have signed National Dual Contracts, limiting themselves to 16 games a season for their clubs barring qualification for knock-out rugby matches.

Indeed, the Pro Teams have come in for fearful stick for the recent lack of domestic success in some quarters.  Funny how the effects of years spent fighting Roger Lewis and David Pickering, under the auspices of the WRU have been ignored. The fact that Ireland, England & France even Scotland have had access to greater funds to invest in players, and yes better coaches too, while the Welsh had to make do with less and less comparatively, escapes far too many.

But the Welsh team have been lauded under Gatland.  Many  believe that 2 Grand Slams and a Championship (that sealed by a record victory against England allowing Gatland and Howley a longer period of grace)  is a wonderful achievement. After the barren years of the ’90s and early 00’s, we shouldn’t complain.  In fact, for many, Wales achieved this success in spite of the set-up, not because of it.  The hobby horse for way too many is “Region-bashing!!”

There’s also a real will to ignore the abysmal record when Wales play against the Southern Hemisphere.  And yes it is abysmal.  Again, the one of the trains of thought most commonly used is to regress to the 70’s when Wales produced one of the greatest ever group of players to play the game.  There’s no need to list those players.  They formed the backbone of history making Lions’ Tours to South Africa and New Zealand.

With a certain symmetry, their record against Southern Hemisphere Teams, when games against this opposition weren’t two a penny, they were valued, revered even, was poor.  It’s easy for some to rationalise both periods.

Fundamentally though, the final argument for many goes like this.  We’re a small country, with limited resources.  We’ve always had to fight tooth and nail for marginal gains.  Any we make shouldn’t be sniffed at. They should be celebrated.  When we don’t make any it’s understandable.  That’s the fall-back position.

Unassailable. Top that off with the terrible way the Pro game has apparently been administered, abused even, by incompetent “Regional” administrators, out to scupper the wonderful work of Lewis & Co., we shouldn’t complain.

Overall, that’s nonsense of course.  That “poor little us” mentality, hasn’t helped one jot – in more than rugby circles too.  For many a Wales supporter, that sentiment immortalised by the Stereophonics is still important.  “As long as we beat the English” still ranks higher than improving as a team and reaching something close to our true potential.

Warren Gatland’s immediate domestic success in 2008, followed by a victory over Australia, was welcome of course.  Coming 3 years after the Ruddock inspired Grand Slam of 2005, it showed some progression.  There was a solidity about that win.

However, that was just the beginning, or it should have been.  It took a further four years for another success in the 6 Nations in 2012, with a second Grand Slam. It took 6 years, and numerous attempts to achieve a second victory against the Southern Hemisphere teams in 2014 v South Africa. In amongst all that was Warren Gatland’s first World Cup with Wales in New Zealand in 2011.

Wales reached the semi-final in that tournament losing to France.  There are many who still blame Alain Rolland for his decision to send off captain Sam Warburton for a spear tackle for Wales’ demise.  There are also many more who were convinced that Wales would have beaten New Zealand in the final – for the first time since 1953  and first time ever in NZ – had they not been harshly treated and defeated by the referee.

Now I’m sceptical over that first claim, and utterly convinced the second is preposterous. Wales won many friends in that World Cup admittedly. However, they lost to South Africa – again.  They beat Ireland, then lost to France and then Australia – again, and finished fourth. There was respect for the way Wales played, and for their outward “professionalism.”

Again, what was the benchmark, notably in the press for all that hype in 2011? They were better than England who had a disastrous off-field tournament, with a laissez-faire attitude to alcohol consumption and  general behaviour, while on-field they were poor.

What was apparent in that period, was a lack of tactical progression.  In many ways it took that long to establish the pattern, or “the plan” as Adam Jones describes it in his book Bomb.  Our game was based on power. On physically dominating opponents. Using big men to get over the gain line, attempting to release more big men to smash more holes in defences that would be intimidated by our size and power.

Wales were not known for their strength, size or power in their barren times.  Indeed, watching us play the better teams, it was often a case of watching “men against boys.” Teams bullying us, while we tried to play an exciting brand of rugby, or often just tried to limit damage. By the time Gatland bedded in though, we had wingers of 16st+.  Forwards who could handle our European counterparts at least, and sometimes the Southern Hemisphere giants too.  This was anathema to the rugby watching public, and the coaches were hell-bent on making the most of it.  Forget the “Welsh Way” – whatever that is.  Wales were going to bully opponents.

This ignored the fact that our opponents weren’t kids who could always be bullied. They were also paid professionals. Paid pros who could tackle, even big lads, coached by other coaches who were capable of devising their own plans  to combat Wales’ “shock and awe” tactics.  Of course, that shock and awe worked initially in Europe. In 2012/13 we saw consecutive Championships. Still no win against a Southern Hemisphere team though.

In Owen Sheers book “Calon” he describes the routine Wales were put through in Poland before the 2012 Grand Slam.  It was identified that Wales had the desire to keep the ball in play for a minimum 35 minutes – a high figure at the time.  Adam Beard, the well respected fitness guru had also identified that players would run 7 or 8 kilometres during a match.

Importantly, players had not been taught to “run.” That sounds really strange, but the top teams have often drafted in specialists, such as Margot Wells to improve running techniques.  What was related next hit me a knock-out punch square between the eyes.  This next bit “Adam told the players again and again on the frozen beaches of Gdansk.”

“We should be the best at everything THAT DOESN’T REQUIRE TALENT.” Effort DOESN’T REQUIRE TALENT. Hard work DOESN’T REQUIRE TALENT. We should be the best at hard work.”

Of course, Wales went on to Grand Slam glory in 2012, so it could be deduced that what was being said worked. It can also be said that this is purely a “frame of mind” statement.  Take care of the little things and the rest will follow.

On the other hand, isn’t that a negative mindset? These  aren’t players who lack basic skills, although they’ve had a fair few coached out of them. Doesn’t that show why the team was so often “beasted” to death, why Gatland and Co. said more than once that Pro Rugby didn’t prepare players for the International game?

Indeed, why Wales’ style of play became so stale and predictable and why, since 2013 we’ve had limited success  against the best teams – although even in ’13 we lost to Ireland – pretty badly.

The accusation levelled at Wales is that they don’t play with any imagination. They have been found out.  Suddenly now,  Wales have been forced to make believe that they will take a new approach. To forget that size and brute force is the be all and end all.  Recently, Rob Howley stated that Wales would be concentrating on skills as “best practice” something they had done in the Autumn, but obviously a departure from previous camps.

That’s a pretty damning state of affairs – in fact a major worry for Welsh fans.  The best teams have put skills at the heart of all they do, for a long while.  Wales’ record in the Autumn Internationals was Won 3 lost 1. Pretty decent statistically – in fact our best Autumn series.  However, its long been an accusation of the coaches that they have been too reliant on statistics and not used the evidence of their own eyes to make decisions.

The one team to actually play well in the Autumn blew Wales away. Argentina and Japan weren’t at full strength, and South Africa were the incarnation of the worst Bok team on record.

Wales squad to play Italy

Scott Andrews (Cardiff Blues) (13 Caps),  Nicky Smith (Ospreys) (7 Caps),  Rob Evans (Scarlets) (12 Caps),  Rhodri Jones (Ospreys) (14 Caps),  Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs) (17 Caps),  Samson Lee (Scarlets) (29 Caps),  Kristian Dacey (Cardiff Blues) (3 Caps)
Ken Owens (Scarlets) (45 Caps),  Scott Baldwin (Ospreys (28 Caps),  Jake Ball (Scarlets) (21 Caps),  Alun Wyn Jones cpt. (Ospreys) (105 Caps),  Rory Thornton (Ospreys) (Uncapped),  Luke Charteris (Bath Rugby) (71 Caps), Cory Hill (Newport Gwent Dragons) (3 Caps),  James King (Ospreys) (10 Caps),  Justin Tipuric (Ospreys) (46 Caps),  Olly Cracknell (Ospreys) (Uncapped),  Ross Moriarty (Gloucester Rugby) (12 Caps), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby) (62 Caps) *,  Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues) (69 Caps),  Thomas Young (Wasps) (Uncapped)

Gareth Davies (Scarlets) (21 Caps), Rhys Webb (Ospreys) (23 Caps),  Aled Davies (Scarlets) (Uncapped),  Dan Biggar (Ospreys) (51 Caps),  Sam Davies (Ospreys) (3 Caps), Owen Williams (Leicester Tigers) (Uncapped),  Jamie Roberts (Harlequins) (86 Caps) *,
Jonathan Davies (Scarlets) (59 Caps),  Scott Williams (Scarlets) (41 Caps)
Ashton Hewitt (Newport Gwent Dragons) (Uncapped),  Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues) (44 Caps),  Steffan Evans (Scarlets) (Uncapped), George North (Northampton Saints) (65 Caps) *,  Liam Williams (Scarlets) (38 Caps), Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon) (66 Caps)

Fundamentally, Wales have left this opportunity to develop their game three years too late at least. England floundered for the last two years of Stuart Lancaster’s reign, even though they finished as runners up four years in a row.  Now they are being coached by a man who is intent on making the most of the massive talent available to them.

During his time as coach of Japan, he identified the National traits of the players he led, and tried to get them to embody these in their rugby.  He is doing the same for England. And how well too?  Although they aren’t infallible, he’s won 13 games on the bounce with them, stretching their winning run to 14.

He’s trying to hammer home the importance of getting the basics right – scrum, lineout, defence – before developing the team’s attacking game. He still hasn’t nailed that down, with the scrum especially still being a concern, but that’s the goal. He’s said that he is operating under two 2 year plans corresponding to the above. God help the rest if he gets it right.

Ireland, under Joe Schmidt have discovered a new edge to their game again too, and have beat New Zealand, South Africa and Australia this year. Again, Schmidt is making the most of his resources. There seems to be an obsession with offloading in rugby.  How many offloads did his team perform in a near faultless display versus New Zealand in Chicago last year? How many versus South Africa?

France are also developing too.  Under Noves, is a team that pushed both Australia and New Zealand close. – after being destroyed by the All Blacks in the last World Cup. Should they get their selection at half-back right, they can be very dangerous this year. You can’t write off either Scotland or Italy either this year either.

For Wales the test is being able to really put into place this “new style.”  Its not necessarily a case of playing champagne rugby, but winning rugby, against better teams than they have played recently. With Howley taking the reigns with Gatland plotting for the hardest of all Lions’ Tours, he needs to show that he can re-programme eight years of the same old, and that’s no easy task.

The new caps picked are exciting young players, but there is a feeling that Howley is incapable of incorporating them into this team.  Last year Gatland made it clear that there is a fear of losing in this tournament.  The press and the public will get on the team’s back if they aren’t winning.

This is where I think the coaching staff have misread their fan base though.  If the public see a concerted effort to progress Wales’ game, there will be disappointment of course, but there will also be support.  Those who don’t offer that probably aren’t real fans at all.

As the better coaches in the tournament are now doing, they are getting the best out of their teams.  They are playing winning rugby –  not always champagne stuff, but its effective and it’s against the top teams in the world. We shouldn’t be fooled by Howley’s and our sycophantic press’s assertion that Wales won 3 out of 4 in the Autumn so we’re in good nick.

On current form, there is no way w can expect to finish any higher than 3rd in this year’s tournament.  What many will be banking on though is that this Tournament is no respecter of form.  Witness the ecstatic reaction to England’s hammering of New Zealand in the Autumn of 2012, followed by progressively weaker performances in the 6 Nations culminating in that result in the final game of 2013.

We genuinely aren’t in a position to be overly confident though, as it stands. It’s over to Howley and Alex King now to prove that we really want to be pushing the best in the World.  What a refreshing change it would be to prove us all wrong. I’m sure many won’t hold their breath.  For me, I’m hoping for improved performance.  Some sign of that and I’ll be happy.