Friday 28 April 2017

Welsh backs to the wall as World Cup clock ticks

Defeat to Ireland would be catastrophic for Howley's men

Dan Biggar, here taking on Scotland's John Hardie, and his Welsh-team-mates have much to prove after their Murrayfield disappointment Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Dan Biggar, here taking on Scotland's John Hardie, and his Welsh-team-mates have much to prove after their Murrayfield disappointment Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Rob Howley was in charge, the Lions tour was looming and Wales came into the Six Nations on the back of a middling November.

Coming into this year's Six Nations, the parallels with 2013 were clear but the story emerging in 2017 is a different picture, with Wales and Ireland reversing their roles.

Four years ago the Dragon roared back after a terrible first-half showing against Ireland to win the title by dismantling England on the final day; this year's crop are out of the running.

Instead, it is Ireland who are aiming to bounce back from a disappointing first-half showing on their first outing to win the Championship at home to England on Super Saturday. Four years ago, the wheels were coming off for Declan Kidney and it ended in disaster in Rome.

What do the 2013 Irish and the current Wales team have in common? They both went to New Zealand in June at the end of a long World Cup season. That 2012 tour was a disaster for Kidney's regime, finishing as it did with a 60-0 humiliation in Hamilton.

Things never got that bad for Warren Gatland's men on their thankless tour but it was a long, joyless three weeks which featured a humbling mid-week defeat to the Waikato Chiefs that went with the three-Test whitewash.

In the years since, the Irish players have all talked about how that painful experience of Hamilton haunted them for a while afterwards and it certainly infected their confidence when it came to the subsequent season, yet the Welsh tour is not featuring much in the analysis in the principality.

Instead, the focus has surrounded a perceived conservatism of selection, the blunt edge of Howley's attack - which will worry Lions fans given his role on tour - and the lack of new faces in what is the most experienced 23 in the tournament.

During last season's Six Nations and the subsequent summer tour, Wales looked to introduce a more expansive off-loading game, but in this year's tournament they have tightened up and thrown fewer off-loads than anyone else. Of the top nations, only Italy have scored fewer tries in 2016/17.

2013 was Ireland's worst Six Nations campaign, while the Welsh produced one of the classic Six Nations performances in their 30-3 mauling of England in Cardiff.

Dominate

They went on to dominate Gatland's selection for the subsequent successful Lions tour of Australia, and two years later they put all of their winning, big-game experience to good use by effectively knocking the English out of their own World Cup.

Interestingly, Gatland joined the Wales squad last weekend after watching through haunted eyes as his erstwhile players slumped to a 16-point loss to Scotland in Edinburgh.

The New Zealander is once again on a sabbatical to prepare for the Lions tour of New Zealand and while he has spent time in the other camps to observe preparation and catch up with the neutrals, it seems hard to believe that he wasn't more hands-on with his own team at the Vale of Glamorgan.

"It is also a gentle reminder to the players that there are Lions eyes upon us as well," assistant coach Robin McBryde said. "I'm sure that will be in the mind of the players; if there is any chance of them going on that tour they have to raise their game."

Whether the prospect of impressing in the Lions race gets the Welsh going this week remains to be seen, but if they don't buck up they risk finishing outside the top eight in the World Rugby rankings, which would mean they will go into the 2019 World Cup draw as third-tier seeds for the second successive tournament. It's a bad time to lose form.

Before the Six Nations began there was some optimism that Howley would change things up when he named seven uncapped players in the squad, but none of them have seen action and the discontent levels are growing.

Fans are growing impatient. The 2013 Six Nations was Wales' last title and while they have remained competitive, two thirds and a second followed by another unsuccessful campaign this year is an unsatisfactory wait without glory.

Set against a horrendous injury list, the 2015 World Cup pool win over England and close shave quarter-final against South Africa were the high water-mark but there is a tired look to the men in red this season.

McBryde's assertion that the team is playing as individuals is a strange one given the fact that this is the most experienced group in this Six Nations.

Their coaching ticket, with and without Gatland, have been together for six seasons, and while the captaincy has passed from Sam Warburton to Alun-Wyn Jones, but that should only add to the leadership in the ranks.

The team that lost to Scotland featured six Test Lions, while Rhys Webb, Liam Williams and Ross Moriarty are furthering their claims to join that pantheon this summer.

Yet, for all that they went toe to toe with England and dominated the Scots for long periods, they come into the Ireland game on the back of successive defeats.

An end-game malfunction and selection faux-pas cost them at momentum-generating victory three weeks ago before their meltdown at Murrayfield.

It's not like they have played terribly, but there has been a week of recriminations over the moment when Dan Biggar wanted to go to the corner but Jones pointed to the sticks and Leigh Halfpenny turned down the shot at goal - summing up a perception that the team are not on the same page.

There are widespread calls for Howley to wield the axe and drop some big names like the under-performing George North to infuse new blood into the team, but the coach will point to the world rankings conundrum. With the stakes this high, Sam Davies, Keelan Giles and Steff Evans are likely to have to wait for their chance.

Amid all of this, Ireland are steeling themselves for a backlash.

Yet, after his side had suffered defeats to both of Friday's opponents earlier in the tournament, Conor O'Shea was in no doubt when he said "that Irish team is better than the Welsh team we played, 100pc".

You have to go back 10 years to find the last time Wales lost three on the trot , but like Ireland in 2013 they are on a downward spiral.

Ireland's mission is to keep them on the same trajectory.

Irish Independent

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