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Welsh rugby is in a dark place after Six Nations whitewash

17 Mar 2024 9 minute read
Dejected players after the defeat against Italy. Photo David Davies/PA Wire.

Simon Thomas

Where I sit in the Principality Stadium press box, I get an immediate snap shot of the post-match mood of Welsh fans.

My seat is right next to a gantry where lower tier supporters make their way out of the arena and they are often keen to share their views about what they have just witnessed, suggesting what we in the media should write in our reports.

There have been lots of days over the last 20 years when the comments have been positive and, at times, positively jubilant.

There have also been plenty of occasions where I have listened to dejected fans expressing their disappointment.

Damning

But there have been few days where the verdict has been as critical and as damning as I encountered yesterday.

There were, of course, a smattering of delighted Italian backers decked out as pizzas, popes and toga-clad emperors.

But the majority streaming past were red in colour and red of face, primed for a Mount Etna-like explosion.

And that’s despite the game having ended with Wales scoring two late tries.

The general consensus was that those touchdowns had merely resulted in a final scoreline that was flattering to the home side and one which didn’t accurately reflect the paucity of the performance.

The reaction from the passing punters was pretty universal – the word “shambles” was one I heard a fair few times amid the dark mutterings and barely concealed anger over how the powers-that-be have allowed things to get this bad.

Black humour

There was also a fair bit of black humour. I had a good chat with a group of fans from Port Talbot, one of whom was wearing a wooden spoon round his neck.

He had chosen his garb well because the spoon was duly delivered to Wales for the first time since 2003, with the 24-21 defeat to Italy confirming their fate.

The air of despondence actually reminded me of what it was like out in Paris 21 years ago after the 33-5 loss to France which completed the only other Welsh whitewash in Six Nations history.

That was another evening where I found myself listening to disgruntled and disillusioned fans airing their grievances.

Of course, what we didn’t have back then was the social media we have today.

That provides an even more vociferous and often febrile forum.

As is habitually the case, my timeline on X lit up after yesterday’s game and people were not mincing their words.

“National embarrassment” “Abysmal” “Absolutely pathetic” “Bizarrely awful” and “Soul destroying” were some of the comments – and those are just the ones I can print!

Ire

Some of the ire was aimed directly at head coach Warren Gatland, amid questioning of whether he should go.

It was a point he was to address in his post-match press conference.

Asked if he planned to stay in the job until the 2027 World Cup, he replied: “Yes, absolutely. I’ve made that commitment.”

Wales head coach Warren Gatland. Joe Giddens/PA Wire.

But he then added: “I just said to (WRU chief executive) Abi (Tierney) in the changing room, ‘If you want me to resign, I’m quite happy to do that’.

“She said ‘Like hell, that’s the last thing I want, that’s what I’m really afraid of’.”

So, clearly, the root and branch review which the WRU plans to carry out into the Welsh game won’t quite cover everything, with Gatland’s future not up for debate.

News of his resignation offer produced yet more strong opinion on social media – reaction of a very mixed nature.

Some argued it indicated his heart might not be fully in it, while others felt his offer should have been accepted by the Union.

Reality check

There was also a reality check delivered by a fair few that the WRU couldn’t afford to pay him off.

But there were also a number of people jumping to Gatland’s defence and pointing out he can only do so much with the players at his disposal – an inexperienced bunch seriously depleted by retirements, injuries and unavailability.

So what exactly is the judgement on the Kiwi after this Six Nations?

Well, one thing you have found with Gatland over the years is given time with players he usually improves them, with his various Wales teams having tended to get better as tournaments have gone on.

But, worryingly, that has not been the case during this Championship.

If anything, Wales saved their worst until last, looking at their performance in the first hour against the Azzurri.

It truly was wretched.

Nervousness

The prospect of becoming the first Welsh team in more than 20 years to pick up the wooden spoon seemed to create a nervousness which was reflected in the error-strewn nature of their play.

They made so many mistakes and so many handling gaffes, while conceding a succession of turnovers and penalties, with their scrum a particular problem once again.

The ham-fisted first half display was perhaps best summed up by Sam Costelow and Cam Winnett colliding as both went to field the same high ball. It really was a Keystone Cops moment.

Unfortunately it wasn’t an isolated one, amid a succession of fumbles, spillages and misplaced kicks in the opening hour.

Wales couldn’t cope with the pressure imposed by the Italian rush defence, with their skill levels crumbling in the face of that blitz, while they just didn’t have anyone with the physicality or power to cross the gain line.

On top of those deficiencies in attack, their rearguard was also found wanting as they were twice sliced open by the visitors.

For the first try, it was class centres Tommaso Menoncello and Ignacio Brex who made the key ground ahead of winger Monty Ioane surging through a gap.

Then, six minutes into the second half, Ioane turned provider as he broke the line and fed Lorenzo Pani, with the full-back stepping inside Josh Adams to score.

That made it 18-0 to the buoyant Italians.

Up until that point, Wales had enjoyed precious little time in the opposition 22.

That was to change as the second half wore on, but in a way that merely served to emphasise their attacking inaccuracy.

Opportunities

A series of golden opportunities were blown, either through the ball being spilled or momentum lost at the breakdown via the concession of a penalty or a turnover.

When a Mexican Wave swept around the ground on the hour mark, you knew people were losing their patience and their interest.

Wales’ Elliot Dee in the process of scoring Wales’ first try David Davies/PA Wire.

Wales did eventually convert pressure into points on 63 minutes when a TMO review confirmed hooker Elliot Dee had just managed to get the ball down as he rolled over the line.

The crowd were suddenly engaged again. But, crucially, the home side were unable to ride the wave and the momentum was lost amid further errors and indiscipline as Paolo Garbisi widened the gap with two well-struck penalties.

In the closing stages, Wales finally started to look more of a potent force, with replacements Will Rowlands and Mason Grady providing the go-forward which had been so lacking for so long.

Second row Rowlands was bullocking ahead and Grady was proving something of a revelation at inside centre.

They were getting over the gain line and the hosts were looking a different team as a result.

But that, in itself, provokes a critical question.

With Wales so short of effective ball carriers, how can players with the size and power of Rowlands and Grady be left out of the starting line-up?

Both of them crossed in the dying minutes, but it was too little too late for Wales.

Cohesive

Italy had been the more cohesive team in both attack and defence overall, thoroughly deserving a victory which capped their best ever Six Nations.

Wales might have been ahead in terms of possession and territory by the final whistle, but a couple of other key stats stand out – the 17 turnovers and 13 penalties they conceded. That mistake-laden double whammy really undermined their efforts.

So what of their tournament as a whole?

Well, there have been individual positives.

Tommy Reffell and Aaron Wainwright have had fine campaigns in the back row, with Tomos Williams looking the man most likely in attack, along with Rio Dyer, while hooker Elliot Dee has been exemplary with his darts at the lineout.

Then there have been the youngsters who have stepped up. Skipper Daf Jenkins has led by example with a mammoth effort in defence, while Cam Winnett and Alex Mann have come through their international initiations with credit.

But, as a collective, Wales just haven’t been good enough, showing an inability to produce an 80 minute performance.

So what now?

Well, we know Gatland is to stay at the helm and we know what’s coming next.

There’s a Twickenham meeting with South Africa on June 22 and then a two-Test tour of Australia which will also take in a fixture against Queensland Reds.

Gatland has made it clear he won’t recall experienced players who weren’t available for the Six Nations due to club commitments, so that would seem to rule out a return for the Japan-based Liam Williams and Provence prop Tomas Francis.

But his squad is set to be reinforced by the likes of Jac Morgan, Taulupe Faletau, Gareth Anscombe, Dewi Lake, Taine Plumtree and Christ Tshiunza coming back from injury.

That will help, but there is a huge amount of ground to make up.

Welsh rugby is in a dark place, the darkest since the last wooden spoon in 2003, with years of under-investment in the pro team game and its pathways having come home to roost.

Everyone will have their own opinions about what needs to be done, but one thing is clear, we can’t carry on as we are.

One final stat. A crowd of 72,121 turned up at the Principality Stadium yesterday.

That kind of attendance is what Welsh rugby relies on for its survival. The international game is the financial engine.

Unless significant changes are made, those crowd numbers will dwindle and I won’t have such a stream of people sharing their views with me on the final whistle – and then we really are in big trouble.


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Riki
Riki
28 days ago

Wooden spoon! Not whitewash! This Welsh side is the most embarrassing I’ve ever seen. No leaders and no ability to manipulate defences from open phase play. We only ever look like scoring is through our Line out, etc. Good help em when this side has to play SA, or NZ. We’ll be shipping 100 points to both of them.

Mike Williams
Mike Williams
27 days ago
Reply to  Riki

Just watched scrum 5 Gatlan correct, the argument is we were paying the regions 8 million and now 4 mill, get rid of 2 regions and share the money between them, Scottish rugby do and seem to be improving, just look at the Dragons, over the last 5 years, you can count there wins on one hand, a waste of money that could be used elsewhere, as above god help us on tour.

Riki
Riki
27 days ago
Reply to  Mike Williams

So we can have even less players to choose from? No thanks! We can afford 4, just like Ireland. Our history also proves that the regions don’t really have an effect on international standards. We have Won 6 six nations since 08’ and we have only had one winner of the Pro 12/14 in that time. The real Problem is how The WRU created false stories in order to avoid questions about where the money was being spent and lack of re-investment. And now people believe the institution is not only corrupt but socially vile. Our game has been Sacrificed,… Read more »

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
26 days ago
Reply to  Riki

If we go back to the old club system will it improve our national side and see the return of supporters alienated by regionalism? Doubtful. I can remember the desert of the 1990s where Wales won one Five Nations in 15 years, where we had an influx of Fijians, Tongans & Samoans taking up places of Welsh qualified players. No criticism of them. Those Southsea islanders were total athletes, but it meant Wales suffered then as it does now. We need a halfway house. Somewhere in-between. Either a return to semi-professional club sides or a reduction of regions focusing resources… Read more »

Rob
Rob
25 days ago
Reply to  Riki

Wales won its first Six Nations championship in 2005. Six championships in total 4 of them Grand Slams, much better than the gloomy days of the 80s and 90s. So regional rugby must be doing something right. They just need rebranding.

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
26 days ago

I’ve pointed out many times those players gaping flaws. If I can see it why can’t the coaches? Watching clueless Wales on Saturday was cringeworthy. We were cumbersome, lacking intensity and a team of lightweights & journeymen. It pains me to say it. We’ve sadly gone backwards. Sad. Welsh rugby needs a total overhaul, and that includes those dinosaurs in WRU too.

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