Can the Dragons find their fire?
January 26, 2013
Sam Warburton and Rob Howley have much to prove in Wales' Six Nations campaign © Getty Images
Rob Howley brings plenty to his role as Wales's interim head coach. He has the goodwill and credibility of someone who has been an outstanding player - none better has ever become head coach of Wales - for the same team.
He had experience outside Wales with Wasps and clearly enjoys the confidence of top-class coaches. Neither Warren Gatland nor Ian McGeechan, who included him in his 2009 Lions coaching team, would choose an assistant on the basis of evident likeability and a good record as a player. He has been at the heart of everything achieved by Wales under Gatland.
He may need all of these attributes, plus some of the luck he rarely enjoyed as an international player - he was outstanding in poor Wales teams and lost his best chance of a real triumph when injured on the 1997 Lions tour - over the next few weeks.
It can of course be argued that getting his current job is a considerable stroke of luck, filling the glaring gap on his CV - the absence of head coach experience. If Wales do well in the 2013 Six Nations he'll be the clear heir apparent when Gatland leaves for good.
But it won't be easy, and not just because of Wales's notorious habit of subsiding back into the lower orders in the years after Grand Slams. His title may be the same as Scott Johnson with Scotland and Stuart Lancaster last season with England, but his 'interim' means something slightly different.
Johnson, like Lancaster, is in a live, very public, audition and interview for the top job. If Scotland go well, Johnson could - like Lancaster last year - find himself with a permanent contract before the tournament ends. Players know that while he might be transient, he could also be the boss for the next five years and will respond to him accordingly.
But whether Howley does well or badly, Gatland is scheduled to return from the autumn. It places the interim perilously close to having responsibility without real power. And if a good season would make him heir apparent, a poor one could make him a non-starter in the race to succeed Gatland. His record so far is a dispiriting zero for five, from that tantalising trio of summer defeats by Australia and the autumn losses to Argentina and Samoa.
Nor is the playing inheritance terribly inspiring. Welsh lock disease has been this year's epidemic of choice. Even if blindside Dan Lydiate, with Adam Jones the player Wales can least afford to lose, makes it back for part of the tournament he will be desperately short of match practice.
Players who last season were playing productively for Welsh regions have been occupying benches in France. Their bank balances may have benefitted, but not their match-sharpness. And then there is the half-back problem, with Mike Phillips regressing into bad habits and the choice at outside-half reprising the old Ospreys dilemma - James Hook's class and creativity or Dan Biggar's game management skills?
There's proven quality further back, with Leigh Halfpenny the one Welshman to have enhanced his reputation in the autumn and the revival in Lee Byrne's form particularly welcome, but more power than subtlety and a fear that, if the pack and half-backs fail to fire, George North will be launching his midfield incursions from a range of 75 metres.
The coaching team has been strengthened by the appointment of Mark Jones as backs specialist, meaning that Howley can concentrate on the top job instead - as was evidently the case in the autumn - of being distracted by specialist duties. But what happens, when Gatland returns, if Jones has succeeded in injecting the creative verve so lacking in recent matches when Howley had charge of the backs?
What all of this does is underline the vital importance of that first match at home to Ireland. Win and Wales will take momentum, and a vital reminder that while they struggle in friendly matches against Southern hemisphere opposition, they have a pretty formidable record when playing for points against fellow-Europeans, into the three away matches which follow, starting in Paris.
It would mean that, even if they lose in Paris, Wales have a reasonable chance of meeting England in Cardiff on the final weekend of the season with a shot at a Triple Crown and maybe a share in the championship.
Lose to Ireland and there's every chance they'll be 0-2 after the opening rounds, with the trips to Rome and Murrayfield bulking rather more formidably than they might and another bottom-half season, Wales's 11th in 14 seasons, looking likely.
Forced to predict, I'll guess that Wales might break that 'all or nothing' pattern by cracking the top half without taking any prizes. Whatever else goes wrong, at least they don't have to play Australia.
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