Where has it all gone wrong for Wales? From Rugby World Cup semi-finalists and Grand Slam winners to five consecutive international losses and the prospect of games against New Zealand and Australia over the next couple of weeks. They are now eighth in the IRB rankings, unchanged from their position after last year’s world cup, but precariously close to joining the third band of teams for the next World Cup draw.
Not enough credit has been given to the Pumas and Samoans for their performances against Wales this month. Any team facing the Pumas knows that you underestimate them at your peril, but Wales appeared to. Samoa assembled a team comprised of players currently playing for clubs in eight different countries and embarrassed the hosts with a display of skill, commitment and passion.
Wales has clearly been badly hit by injuries, but so have others and no team in the professional era can hide behind injuries. The injury to Warren Gatland before the tour to Australia may have proved the most costly and to Rob Howley fell the poisoned chalice of caretaker head coaching. It’s a big jump from inexperienced assistant to head coach, and he certainly looks out of his depth. Some of his pre and post match comments appear as naïve and one dimensional as the Welsh performances.
The strength of the Welsh scrum was the foundation upon which the Grand Slam success was based and the absence of a couple of key players has seen their scrum completely outplayed by both Argentina and Samoa. The flair and pace of the backs has deserted Wales who have scored only one try so far in this series, and that was an opportunistic intercept by Ashley Beck against Samoa. To make matters worse they have conceded five tries in the two games and Shaun Edwards will be working hard to plug the defence before Saturday’s encounter with the All Blacks, who outscored them five tries to one when the sides last met in Cardiff in 2010.
Questions have been raised about some selections this month, such as the ongoing presence of Rhys Priestland in the side. He has been responsible for some shocking decision making and poor execution, exemplified in the game against Samoa when with a three man overlap, he kicked the ball dead from fifty metres and a great opportunity was wasted. If Priestland fails to spark against the All Blacks, perhaps James Hook deserves a chance.
Sam Warburton has looked out of sorts and has yet to raise his game to the levels of the World Cup or Grand Slam campaigns. He won’t be short of motivation when taking on the All Blacks, where he will be competing at the breakdown with Richie McCaw for only the second time in his international career. A greater challenge for Warburton will be to restore the self belief and confidence that were the hallmark of his team and have been absent this month.
The return of Warren Gatland from Lions duty will be a relief to Welsh supporters who will hope that he can turn things around. It might be asking a bit much, particularly when facing the World Champions who are unbeaten in their last nineteen matches. Gatland will demand that senior players impose themselves and show the leadership which has been lacking in recent weeks. Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips will need to raise their games and inspire confidence in the youngsters who have performed so well in the last 15 months.
Welsh rugby is in disarray and while a win might be a big ask this weekend, a performance that restores pride in the red jersey is the minimum that should be expected.