It could be worse for Wales
December 7, 2010
Shane Williams proved to be a major loss for Wales © Getty Images
It could be worse. A year ago it was, as Wales digested that fearfully unexpected mullering by Australia, a result from which in retrospect they still have yet to recover.
Australia, in their turn, must wonder after their slaughter of the French, what it is about the last weekend in November and whether it can be bottled, stored and applied on more important occasions like the later stages of the World Cup.
Perhaps 'it could be worse' is the best we can hope for when playing the All Blacks. Generally, after all, it has been. And it was certainly worse a week earlier when Wales were lucky to extract a draw from the visit of Fiji - the one benefit this writer has derived from a motoring mishap earlier in the week is that that particular debacle was viewed on a television set in east London rather than as the reward for a 170-mile schlep down the M4.
It could, though, also have been considerably better. The way Wales went down to New Zealand showed, like the earlier defeats by Australia and South Africa, limitations that need to be addressed if the Six Nations is not to be equally cheerless.
If there truly is 'a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune', Wales would wind up stranded well up the beach and skint. Their chronic inability to seize the moment was epitomised by the 10-minute spell early in the second half when the All Blacks were reduced to 14 men. It was a time when the match could have been won, and indeed it was - by New Zealand.
In a fixture with a host of historical resonances - no complaints about that here, since it is good for business - the date this evoked was 2004. On that occasion, Ma'a Nonu went off for 10 minutes with the match in the balance, the All Blacks raised their game and a Welsh chance was lost.
Still more dispiriting was the blowing of what the French so elegantly call 'penaltouches'. To fail to win the line-out after kicking a penalty to touch once is bad enough. To do it three times really is abysmal. Even allowing for that All Black ability to respond to a crisis, it seems extraordinary that a coaching team containing two former hookers has been unable to resolve a long-running Welsh weakness. Sort that one out and the current front-five, with the Lions Test front-row backed by two genuinely top-class locks, might be regarded as Wales's best since the late 1970s. Unless and until it does happen they, and Wales, will fall short.
Beyond that was an overall predictability in play. Blame tends to fall, and not without some reason, on the backs. But they are also dependent on the pack's ability to generate the right sort of possession. If the front-five looks settled, the back-row is anything but. None of the combinations look remotely as effective or creative as the 2005 model. Wales then boasted Martyn Williams at his peak, Ryan Jones - who handled his post-Fiji demotion from the captaincy with characteristic grace - as a gainline-crossing force on the blindside and Michael Owen's ball-handling skills at No.8.
Among the backs, there was a fresh reminder that Shane Williams' value is never so apparent as when he is not there. But for his injury against South Africa, Wales might have found the guile and penetration needed for a win and the Fiji match - assuming Shane had played at some point - would not have seen such attacking sterility.
So, who did have a good autumn? Adam Jones confirmed himself among the most formidable front-rowers in the game. Tom Shanklin reminded us of many of his virtues, although also of some of his limitations. And there was George North, taking as brilliant a bow as any Welshman since Keith Jarrett.
And, of course, Gavin Henson. Welsh rugby fans should now be voting in concert to get him off Strictly Come Dancing and back into concentrating on what he does best. One suspects smart English fans may already be casting their votes to keep him on - and distracted - in order to minimise his chances of being ready to play against them on the opening night of the Six Nations. The emergence of Owen Farrell at Saracens need not be bad news if it has Henson playing at centre or fullback, the positions he is likely to be needed by Wales, rather than trying to relearn the skills of outside-half.
A final thought concerns the Millennium Stadium. My gripe concerns not just the worst-located press box of any major sports ground I've been to, but the unacceptable condition of the pitch and the never-ending nonsense of whether the roof will be opened or closed before each match. Closing it does not in any case help playing conditions - the rugby league player Terry Newton's recent memoir confirms what Shanklin told me some years ago, that the pitch sweats when the roof is closed, making the ball greasy and tough to handle.
Time perhaps for the IRB to step in and rule on something that should not be in question anyway - that rugby is an outdoor game, that coping with rain and wind are among its challenges (this certainly should not be a problem for anyone who has grown up in Wales) and that the roof should only be closed on the rare occasions when it makes the difference between the match being played and postponed.
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