Monday 22 January 2018

Struggles look set to continue for Wales

Sense of gloom grips Cardiff, says Andrew Baldock

George North accepts that Wales are behind the eight-ball after an abysmal start to an autumn Test campaign that is now hurtling towards whitewash territory.

Last year's World Cup semi-finalists are staring at a sixth successive defeat – their worst results sequence since the 2002-03 season – when New Zealand roll into Cardiff next Saturday.

Australia follow the All Blacks seven days later, and after Wales' dreadful displays against Argentina and Samoa it is difficult to imagine them threatening either opponent.

The current sense of gloom could be partially lifted by head coach Warren Gatland's imminent return to tracksuit duty from Lions business, but Wales are in all kinds of strife. On top of an alarming form slump, the reigning Six Nations champions also have a damaging injury list.

Already without key forwards Adam Jones, Dan Lydiate and Alun-Wyn Jones, hooker Richard Hibbard and outhalf Dan Biggar suffered shoulder problems that prompted early exits against Samoa.

Lock Teofilo Paulo could be cited for the gruesome challenge that ended Biggar's evening, but Wales' collective pain is now so severe that it almost defies description.

"We have got a big week ahead of us," North said. "It has been a bit of a poor start for us, but hopefully we can conjure up something against the All Blacks. They are the hardest team in the world to try to get a win against, but we are really focusing on it."

Given that Wales have failed to topple New Zealand in 24 attempts stretching back almost 60 years, it is difficult not to fear the worst for a team crippled by its lack of confidence.

The statistics point to more pain for Wales. Since Bleddyn Williams captained Wales to a 13-8 success against New Zealand in 1953, the average scoreline across 24 subsequent defeats is 34-10, while Australia have seen off Wales seven times in a row.

"We suffered in terms of discipline, our basic skills under pressure. We lost that battle," North added. "Leading into the game, we trained well and everything felt pretty smooth, but our basic skills let us down, and without them you can't put a platform down.

"It is a blow to us, but come Monday morning we will look at ourselves and work hard. It is Test rugby. You have your highs and lows. We had highs with the World Cup and the Six Nations last season, and we are in a tough autumn series now."

Interim head coach Rob Howley will now hand control back to Gatland after registering one win in six games. He reclaims the hot-seat for Wales' Six Nations title defence, which starts on February 2.

"International rugby is about discipline, and when we created opportunities in the game, although we did not have many, we were disappointed in terms of our top-three inches at times," said Howley.

"We were out-performed by a Samoa side whose ability to keep the ball better than us was the most disappointing aspect of the performance. We did not have control of possession or in terms of the contact area, and that (performance) is obviously not international standard.

"Over the last 12 months or so we have been to the World Cup semi-finals and won a (Six Nations) Grand Slam. We have had the highs, and now we are going through a low.

"We have to bounce back, and rugby gives you an opportunity.

"We have two good games against New Zealand and Australia to come, and it is something to look forward to."

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