Well, it really was worse case scenario in the end. Going into the Autumn test series, captain Sam was bullish about four wins, the fans would have taken two, and yet everyone (apart from teams playing in any colour other than red in Cardiff) had to settle for none. On top of four weeks of disappointments, Wales now find themselves stuck in the world rankings behind Samoa and Argentina, the sort of nation that the IRB needs to bend over backwards to help develop. That’s right, we are now statistically worse than the ‘we need help’ nations…it’s not good is it?
And yet, should we now turn to the depths of despair? After all, England, Ireland and France are all bouncing around the international scene with excitement and positivity, what can Wales be hopeful about in such dark times? Well, there are some crumbs of comfort, but you really need to look deep into the darkened crevices under the dinner table to find them – and much of it comes from the injury list.
Okay, so the party line from Welsh management, players and fans alike will be ‘no excuses’. Quite right, so long as Wales can put out a starting XV then there will be a recognised Welsh international team to cheer on and shoot down. In no way do we want to reverse that mentality, accepting defeat is unacceptable. But if we look ahead, say three seasons, maybe seven ahead, there is some scope for optimism.
After all, how many international teams would realistically be able to cope with the scale of injuries faced by Wales during these Autumn months? It’s not as simple as saying that Wales had many first team regulars at their disposal, the injuries Wales faced were not so evenly spread out. No, what Wales had was injury upon injury in the same, crucial, positions. Let’s take the tight head prop position. Even before the first ball was kicked against Argentina, there were plenty of Welsh fans writing off Welsh chances with the loss of Adam Jones, and yet, Wales found an eager Englishman to take his place. After a few games, it suddenly appeared that Wales had a new tight prop, one who could scrimmage. Then the Englishman got injured. Off course, there were two other tight head props in development in Wales, but they were injured before we even got the Autumn series started. So, against the All Blacks trundles on Scott Andrews, the fifth choice Welsh tight head, on the bench was a 20 year old in his rooky season, Wales’ sixth choice…
In the second row, by the end of the four matches, Wales had lost choices one through to four, fielding a fifth choice lock in the form of Lou Reed, and Ryan Jones, who barely qualifies as a sixth choice being that he is not even a second row! In the front row, it was said to be the case that Matthew Rees had slipped in the pecking order to become third choice for Wales, luckily for him, the first and second choice players were out injured as well.
While the situation was healthier in the backline, selected injuries to the likes of Roberts, Biggar, Beck, North compounded the problems faced in the boiler house. Brittle bones and limp ligaments served to play their part in the scuppering of Wales, but they might yet prove to be essential in the rise of Wales once more.
All of a sudden, Wales can compete on the World stage with fifth choice tide head props, sixth choice second rows, third choice hookers. The likes of Jarvis and Andrews have shown that they can compete, the likes of Shingler have proven their worth in key positions on the international stage, the likes of Liam Williams have illustrated the fact that Wales can be dangerous from the wing without George North.
Psychologically this Welsh team might be shot for a season or two, maybe not, that’s down to the coaching team. The standard of the players regional fair might be a constant cause for concern, and that is something for the Unions to address urgently. But in terms of player development, Wales remain right in the thick of it. Perhaps the players who came into key positions might not have quite the ability to beat the best in the world today, but they have proven that in their infant international careers, they can certainly complete. As England have shown, the more game time these young players get, the better they will become. Give the likes of Jarvis, Andrews, Lee, Shingler, Reed and Williams more exposure at this level, and they will grow. And then, if by same stroke of good fortune, Wales can field their first choice XV, they might do so safe in the knowledge that an injury to the likes of Adam Jones will not be the end of ambition, but the beginning of an opportunity for someone we know can perform.
This Autumn has frankly been a bag of disappointment, piled high with a weighty pile of misplaced expectation. The future does not necessarily need be the same. Wales DOES have the strength in depth once craved for, the challenge now is get that strength in depth playing to consistent enough of a quality week in week out, to make the very best of the tools at our disposal.