Glass half full
January 26, 2010
Wales skipper Ryan Jones is approaching his best form © Getty Images
Little in sporting cliché seems much less appropriate than the practice of referring to a manager or coach's term of office as their 'reign'. It appropriates a term properly applied to people who have a hereditary job for life to apply to employees who typically have a short, vulnerable existence.
There is, though, one parallel. Like the tenures of crowned heads, those of the more durable coaches provide a handy means of describing periods of history. Hence 'the Woodward era' for England between the autumn of 1997 and the summer of 2004.
In these terms, year three of the 'Warren Gatland era' begins with a visit to Twickenham on February 6 and expectation is cast on a more 'half empty or half full' scale than in the previous seasons. In 2008 the mood might have been summed up as 'things can only get better', and of course they did to the extent that this time last year saw slightly overblown expectation, with genuine belief that a second consecutive Grand Slam might be within Wales' grasp.
There's a fair case for either the 'half empty' or the 'half full' stance. Take for instance the Heineken Cup so far this season. Whatever you think about the decision to offer Challenge Cup places as consolation prizes to three runners-up, it meant that the Welsh franchises ended the Pool stage feeling pretty good, with the Scarlets and Cardiff clinching spots by winning away on the final weekend.
Encouragement might also be taken from the Ospreys' victory over Leicester. It was exactly the sort of tight, attritional grind-it-out contest that they've traditionally lost to the Tigers, evidence that at last they may be learning to win the matches in which opponents make it seriously difficult - Leicester rarely do anything else - rather than allowing them to flow and sparkle.
The '16th man' incident will surely lead to a fine rather than any more serious sanction. Having declined to eject Harlequins from the competition for premeditated cheating, it would be absurd to hammer the Ospreys for a cock-up. Leicester are perfectly entitled to their protest, but their argument that they would have scored had Lee Byrne not been in the field of play would have greater force if they'd ever really looked like scoring during the entire 80 minutes.
On the other side it can be pointed out that Welsh representation in the final eight is back to one after a couple of years in which two teams qualified, that a squad as gifted as the Ospreys really should be doing better than the three consecutive best runners-up slots they have attained - with the previous two leading to rapid, ugly exits in the quarter-finals - and that in any case Heineken performance is an unreliable guide to the Six Nations. The 2005 Grand Slam followed a Heineken pool stage in which no Welsh team finished higher than third.
Then, what of the most eye-catching selections in Gatland's Six Nations squad - Kristian Phillips and 17 year old Tom Prydie, who will become the youngest ever Wales player - beating Victorian winger Norman Biggs - if he plays at any time during the championship. Biggs himself offers a mixed set of omens - he scored a vital try in the most memorable Welsh victory of the nineteenth century, but also once commented 'Tackle? It was as much as I could do to get out of his way' of a particularly blockbusting English opponent and suffered perhaps the strangest death of any Welsh player, killed by a poison dart in Nigeria at the age of 37.
In more contemporary terms the issue is whether their selection represents the rise of exciting new talent or desperation brought on by limited resources. Stuart Davies, the former Wales No.8, made a sensible contribution to the debate when he called for the reinstatement of 'A' internationals - dropped some years ago for financial reasons - to provide a stepping stone for developing players. If Scotland can afford an 'A' team, surely Wales can.
Evidence from the Ospreys-Tigers match was that keeping up with the Joneses will be tough for opponents, whether you're talking about Adam's scrummaging, Alun-Wyn's lineout work or Ryan's all-round back-row game. James Hook injected subtlety unmatched by anyone on the Tigers' side while Byrne, the odd wayward kick apart, looked something like his old self. But Shane Williams looked some way short of full fitness - that extra edge of acceleration that takes him through gaps yet to return - and there is no player Wales can currently less afford to do without than Mike Phillips, particularly without Dwayne Peel available as a top-class deputy.
Then there's kicking off at Twickenham, historically Wales's least favourite current Six Nations venue, with only 12 wins in 45 visits. When there's not much to choose between teams - as there would appear to be on this occasion - home advantage tends to prevail. But if Twickenham looms as an obstacle, winning there can also be a launch pad. Five of the seven Welsh Grand Slams since 1950 - plus the near-misses, for differing reasons, of 1972 and 1988, started in West London.
So, plenty to discuss and debate before the unacceptable voice of sporting cliché proclaims - as he surely will - that 'the time for waiting is over' across the Twickenham public address system. Mine's a half.
Huw Richards' 'The Red and the White: The Story of England v Wales rugby' (Aurum Books £8.99) is out now in an updated paperback edition.