15 Nov 2012

A difficult season lies ahead for Welsh rugby

The first of the widely anticipated autumn internationals proved to be a rather underwhelming experience for those of us with a staunchly Welsh disposition.

From the kick off it was evident that Wales lacked the killer bite to pierce the Argentinean line, and as the cut and thrust of the early encounters settled and the game found some flow, it became glaringly obvious that, it was the Pumas rather than the Red Dragons, who possessed the necessary bite to win the game. Ultimately, it took just 80 minutes for the promise garnered by a stunning world cup performance and a third Grand Slam in eight years to be largely diminished.

From the evidence provided by last Saturday’s performance, it seems there are some glaring flaws in the current Welsh setup. Does the blame lie at the door of interim head coach Rob Howley? Are the team suffering from a lack of leadership given the absence of their commander-in-chief Warren Gatland? Perhaps it was a case of poor preparation or player focus? Or could it be that the much lauded Polish training camps were scheduled too closely to the first test?

Regardless of the whys and wherefores of the Welsh performance, the improvement of The Pumas was clear for all to see. The inclusion of Argentina into the newly formed ‘Rugby Championship’ is largely credited for the team’s drastic improvement, and with the sport’s appeal growing exponentially across the globe, it can only be a good thing to have another country competing at the game’s highest level.

So what are the reasons behind Wales’ lacklustre performance? With Warren Gatland on his year-long sabbatical to coach the British Lions, the reins have been temporarily handed over to Welsh stalwart Rob Howley. Having been at Gatland’s side for a couple of years now, one could be forgiven for expecting the leadership, organisation and coaching ability to have transferred seamlessly to Howley. But is it fair to lay the blame at Howley’s door? Given that key forwards Dan Lydiate, Adam Jones and Ryan Jones were out injured, Howley had little choice other than to turn towards the unproven Aaron Jarvis and Josh Turnbull. Despite committed performances from both of these players, there still seemed to be a lack of direction and leadership in the Welsh performance.

The on-field leader, Sam Warburton, has had his own performances questioned so far this season, and with Justin Tipuric hot on his heels, could he find himself being replaced? When your figurehead and talisman is absent, you look to your captain and coaching staff to pick up the slack and carry the team forward. It was evident that this was not the case on the weekend. The Welsh players on the field looked short of ideas and the coaching staff seemed to have exhausted the playbook.

Tiredness seemed to be another factor as the game reached its climax. The Polish training camps have been much acclaimed, with the Spala training reported to have built a unity and solidarity amongst Welsh ranks which was the foundation of the heroic defensive efforts in the World Cup. Yet this time around, the players seemed lacking in energy and mental focus. The brutal nature of the Polish camp has been well documented, so could certainly have played a part.

Youth has always been given a chance in the Gatland era, and Howley has done his best to follow this mantra. But with youth you need leadership. The current crop of Welsh players oozes athleticism and talent. But the lack of leadership does seem to be an issue. There are those that seem to be questioning Sam Warburton’s leadership qualities at the moment. There is no doubt that he is currently one of the world’s best open-sides and commands the respect of his fellow players, but is this enough?

There have been instances where the importance of on-field leadership has been clear for all to see. The Graham Henry era at the helm of New Zealand highlighted the importance of leadership both on and off the field. Cast your mind back to the 2007 World Cup quarter final against France. New Zealand could have taken a drop goal to win. However, Henry had installed key decision makers all over the field. One of these decision makers, captain Richie McCaw, made the decision that as drop goals had not been practised, it would not be a fruitful venture. New Zealand lost. However, this group of players went on to deal with the pressure of tournament after tournament thereafter and dominated world rugby for the subsequent four years, culminating in winning the 2011 World Cup.

So it would seem that leadership both on and off the field is key, and can bear fruit. Wales need to learn the lessons and address this situation quickly to prevent further problems. As yet the season is young and it would be foolhardy to draw too many conclusions from one lacklustre performance. Wales have the opportunity to set the record straight against the gargantuan Samoans, no easy feat in itself, before encounters against the world’s best two ranked teams, New Zealand and Australia. You can rest assured these clashes will make for difficult viewing indeed for welsh fans unless they show a marked improvement on their leaderless display against The Pumas.

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  1. Excellent article Rachel.

    Most champion teams have their ups and downs as they mature. One feels that Wales may find it difficult this year without Gats' direction, but that may ultimately help others in the squad and even the coaches to come out of their shell more.

    The Polish training camps have been much lauded and there is no doubt in my mind that they have been successful in providing the players with supreme fitness. One suspects thought that perhaps too much time was spent ocusing on fitness rather than tactics.

    Before, Wales may have outlasted the Pumas and that may have been enough. The Argentinians are different sort of team now that they are in the Rugby Championship though and a little more thought is required to turn them over.

  2. I think Ireland have Wales first up...given how poor (Ireland) have been the last few years (mainly due to the coaching tactics) I think if Wales get the win against us they will find that spark again.

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