Wales contributed little but boredom
March 22, 2011
The looming retirement of Shane Williams is a major worry for Wales © Getty Images
Well, wasn't that a crashing anticlimax? To go into the last day of the Six Nations with at least a theoretical shot at becoming champions, and have that possibility look rather more than theoretical with half an hour left of the previous match, only to finish fourth is nothing if not deflating.
As so often this season it wasn't what happened that was depressing as the manner of it. Wales have certainly had much, much worse seasons, many of them still recent enough for the memories to hurt. But have they ever had a duller one?
Will Wales' contribution to any of their five matches, or the 400 minutes and more of rugby that made them up, live in the memory for any time at all? Shane's try against Scotland perhaps and Mike Phillips' against Ireland, although not for any positive reason. But beyond that?
Their best spell was probably the final quarter against Ireland, when Wales held out with considerable competence against a decent team. While nobody could feel anything but mild embarrassment about the moment in which that match turned, a fair case could be made that Wales on balance deserved the win.
An even stronger case can be made that winning as many as three matches was something of an achievement. None of those victories were conclusive, while the two defeats were.
It is true, as Lee Byrne tried to argue after the England game, that Wales might have won that match. But that was a possibility from the same category as the 'seen them given' case for a penalty in football.
It might have happened, but it would hardly have been fair or right. Anyone who thought Wales were the better team on that Friday night in Cardiff - and it should be pointed out that Byrne was not arguing this - really must have over-indulged in pre-match hospitality.
There could be no such argument about the French game, where Wales finished a distant second to a desperately ordinary France team. When we think of France, we are still prone to cite élan and panache. Saturday reminded us that ennui and mediocre are also French words.
The post-Championship statistics suggest that Wales made a little go a long way. They were bottom of the six in terms of possession won in the opposition 22, ruck clearance and ball won. They conceded more penalties, 59, than any other team and had to make more tackles - all symptoms of a team that spent long periods under pressure.
The statistic that will please Wales' coaching staff is that they made fewer errors than any other team. That, though, is something of a mixed blessing. A high error count may of course be down to technical failing, but it is also frequently the reflection of a team that has been trying to make things happen. England topped that particular count this season.
Perhaps most striking of all is the finding that Wales kicked more possession and passed less of it than any other team, hardly in keeping with a self-image - at least to some extent historically well-founded - as the tournament's free spirits.
There was not much 'free' about Welsh spirits this season. We can all quote Disraeli about statistics, but these numbers do not lie. They reflect a team that made a fair amount from a little, one that lacked creativity and did not have the power necessary to make up for it.
That is also reflected when we look for strong performances across the season. The front-five did not do badly considering that Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones hardly played. Bradley Davies confirmed the positive impression of last season and with Alun-Wyn Jones gave Wales a decent second-row.
Ryan Jones handled the loss of captaincy and, initially, his starting place very well, looking more like his old self than he has for years. Dan Lydiate did little wrong and Sam Warburton continued to develop.
The real problems were further back. Most debate inevitably focused on James Hook. Which is his best position? We still don't really know. What we do know is that he is Wales' best - and in the absence of Shane Williams often only - hope of something out of the ordinary. Consciousness of that may not be helping his judgment, leading him to force the game where simpler options might be better.
One thing that should be tried in order to help him is getting him better, quicker service. When his all-round game offered so many other plusses, the comparative slowness of Mike Phillips' service could be overlooked. When it doesn't, that no longer applies. Time surely for serious consideration of a recall as starter for Dwayne Peel.
Similarly we may have to accept the evidence of two seasons since the British & Irish Lions tour. Namely that Jamie Roberts is a great player when alongside Brian O'Driscoll - who takes all the opposition attention and provides great service - but something of a one-trick pony under other circumstances.
Time here for a footballing option, one of the second-fives familiar to Warren Gatland from his rugby education in New Zealand, rather than a blunderbuss. One player whose reputation certainly has not been diminished by this Six Nations, although Gatland will quite rightly want evidence of match practice and fitness before he considers selection, is Gavin Henson.
Gatland might also want to think back to his first weeks as Wales coach and one of his earliest actions - persuading a veteran named Williams out of international retirement. He got three good years out of Martyn, and needs Shane now as he did Martyn then. It is no criticism of Leigh Halfpenny and George North, both players with a real future, to say that neither yet offers what Shane does - the capacity for the unexpected Wales otherwise badly lack.
One problem may be beyond Gatland's range. While the most spectacular deficiency of the Millennium Stadium is what must be the worst-located press box in any major sports stadium in the world, that is a problem afflicting only those of us who work from there. A much more significant defect, since it affects players and fans, is the deplorable state of the pitch. The best players can be reduced to the pedestrian by a surface that cuts up and undermines their footing. The WRU has become adept at issuing statistics that show how much money the stadium brings into Wales, but while the pitch remains a national disgrace - and a severe handicap to anyone attempting to play decent rugby - the overall balance will remain in debit.
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