Cast your mind back less than four years ago. Wales have almost single-handedly won the deciding Lions test in Australia with ten players. They were the Six Nations champions, having won the 2012 with a grand slam also. They had reason to be optimistic.
If you’d have told a Welsh fan what has happened since then they wouldn’t be devastated, but very disappointed. Other than their shock win against England in the 2015 World Cup, Wales have been short of big scalps, and more importantly silverware, since.
“Warrenball” is dead. Wales’ lame attempts to adapt have provided very little cause for celebration. They won three out of four autumn games, however one of those wins was a narrow victory over Japan, and the other two were against the worst South Africa and Argentina teams seen for a decade.
Australia ripped them to shreds. They managed just eight points on the day. That says all you need to know about their attack. In defence, they allowed Australia to have lightning quick ball and put every backs move into practice. The first half was like watching a training session. This also being an Australian team who lost against England (four times in 2016) and Ireland.
More significantly though, they only just edged out France and Scotland away, two sides Wales have to make the trip to.
The regions have improved this season, but the squad has not. A change in style is imminent and you feel it is needed as France and Scotland rapidly improve, whilst England and Ireland attempt to consolidate their place around the top.
It is true they still have a good pack, and an experienced one. They also have some quality players, with Justin Tipuric emerging as an excellent ball carrier and runner. Their new captain, Alun Wyn Jones, will make a good contribution across the field and, if fit, Toby Faletau will get them the go forward they want. They also have backs with high potential but it is questionable that they’ll pick them.
They will generate a good atmosphere at home and will be difficult to stop if they can establish control of a game early on.
Wales’ coaches have really seemed to run out of ideas. In the autumn internationals, they looked pretty sluggish going forward, dominating the play at times but finding it very difficult to take their chances and break down opposition.
Their defence, usually one of the strongest aspects of their game is not looking impressive. As already mentioned, Australia coasted through their defence several times in the autumn and they shipped 30 points to Japan.
Furthermore, their coaches don’t seem to be up to it. The Warren Gatland-Rob Howley era has seen great success for Wales but you just feel the team is not going anywhere, and in international rugby that is going backwards.
The Key Men
Tipuric is almost nailed on for the seven shirt. The 27-year-old does his fair share of work in the loose, but can also run the ball with great speed and is such a threat.
Rhys Webb has had a fine season for both club and country. If he can replicate some of the form he found in the 2015 Championship he will be hugely dangerous. The scrum-half has the skills and awareness to cause teams problems, but he will hope Wales can start to play a more attractive style of rugby.
The Difference Between Success And Failure
Team selection and style of rugby.
If Wales continue with the same sort of starting lineup they’ve had down the years they will get beaten. They were superb from 2011 to 2013, but many have not hit those heights since. It is absolutely staggering given his recent form Alex Cuthbert has made their squad.
The coaches don’t have long, but they have to try and get Wales to play a more exciting style of rugby, predictability simply won’t work against the Six Nations sides, unlike their lacklustre opposition in their last three Six Nations games.
Why Wales Will Finish Fifth And The Implications Of This
It’s a bold prediction. Wales may come out and prove they are still the real deal. I am prepared to accept they could easily win as many as three or maybe even four games. But my gut is telling me this will be the end of an era.
They should beat Italy, but will struggle to host on fire England and Ireland. They face trips to much improved French and Scottish opposition who will both be expecting to beat them. It will be extremely difficult.
If Wales do finish fifth, Gatland and Howley’s futures will be in doubt. They have failed to freshen the team up and I think they’ll pay the price. Wales need to evolve and need to make wholesale changes to the squad and style. It may be uncomfortable for their fans now, but they have quality players coming up through the ranks and a world-class coach will change things.
Nick Powell, Pundit Arena