Wales v Australia. 2 down, and a hunt for a positive.
Well, here we are. The end of the much heralded tour to Australia. I say ‘end’ in the respect that we are into that dreadful area of sporting objectives, the chance to win some pride, the series now being dead in the water. One last chance for Wales to hunt down the southern hemisphere scalp in their own backyard, but even a win next week would be shadowed by the series defeat. ‘Brave’ and ‘close’ are two words which will be tossed around in the coming days, but defeat is the one word which will underline any superlatives dragged out to make up for failure to launch of the Welsh efforts down under.
The nature of the second test defeat was largely symbolic of Welsh failings throughout the two internationals. A dreadful decision from Priestland to hand possession back to an Australian team with a minute to go. There was no need to give possession back, no sense in giving it back, just generosity, a particular kind of Welsh generosity, a generosity that says ‘if we keep this ball, we’ll win, but have another go anyway lads’. Poor decisions will haunt Wales, and from the fans perspective, frustrations with those decisions will be the marker to take home from the tour.
But here is a thought that probably won’t be snowed under in support or adulation, Wales should have won this test series. Despite the two defeats and a calamity of errors, both tests were there for Wales to win, and their own ineptitude contributed to their defeat as much as Australian commitment and skill (of which there was plenty on display). Wales would certainly not have deserved to lead the series 1-0 after their first test showing. Awful decision making, lethargic play and a general absence of pace and intent left Wales looking like an end of season touring party that had enjoyed one too many on the beach hut bar the night before, yet the sheer volume of chances that were there for Wales, missed only through poorly placed passes, a failure to look up, a fumble here and there (in short, Welsh errors, often unforced) would have been enough to win for game.
For the second test, in attack Australia vanished. Apart from a flash or two of mercurial running, there was very little coming at the Welsh try line. What was coming had been given position and space from catastrophic Welsh lineout play, and little else. This time the chances for points were taken by Wales, but the set piece collapsed. From a lineout that dominated the Six Nations, Wales have reverted to the bad old habits seen during the Henry/Hanson era – basics going badly wrong, and gift upon gift was lavished on the Australian backline as a result.
And yet, for so many crucial things going wrong so very often, Wales led the second test with a minute to go, and, had a monumentally stupid decision not been made, a victory would have been recorded. Despite the depressing long list of ‘areas to improve’, Wales still came within a whisker of turning over an Australian side away from home, something unheard of in several rugby playing generations. Now, is that a positive? Well, if it is, it’s not a very promising one. This Wales squad should have left the days of ‘brave performance – no result’ long behind them, but here they are again. And still, despite playing poorly, the result should have come. The more recent occasions where a Welsh team has gone to Australia and performed poorly, has usually resulted in a minimum 30 point hammering. Not so this time.
So let’s not sugar coat things, Wales lost. Perhaps they should have won, but they failed once more on foreign soils. But while this is disappointing, it is far from the end. Too many Welsh journalists wrote before the Welsh team flew for Oz, that this was the now or never moment. Really? With these defeats, this Welsh team will never beat a southern hemisphere team down under? I’m not so sure. There are things to improve on, lots of things, but developmentally this Welsh squad has a very long way to go. The Grand Slam was not the final product, a series defeat in Australia is not the end of the teams progression. So yes, let’s be annoyed that bad habits have crept back in and cost us a series win overseas, let’s call for changes, for trying Hook, for dropping Phillips, for bringing back Ian Evans, for not playing Warburton when the man can barely walk, and anything else you might want to add to the suggestion box entry to be posted asap to Mr Howley, but let’s not say that this is the end. Learn from this, and be better for it, that is the only way this team will improve, and let’s hope, for want of anything else, that they might start that process next week.