Archive for the ‘ Wales ’ Category

Is anyone feeling sorry for Rob Howley?

Any rugby fan who has come across the classic, much imitated, Living with Lions series charting the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 1997, would have needed a heart of stone to not feel sympathy for Rob Howley when a very messy dislocated shoulder forced him out of the tour. Perhaps everyone in Wales and involved with Welsh rugby needs to go back and watch that sequence again, because little else in the form of sympathy will greet him this morning.

© Huw Evans Picture Agency

Rob Howley has gone from outstanding playing talent and record breaking Welsh rugby captain, to national pariah, doomed to be chased around the streets of Bridgend by mobs carrying pitchforks and wearing the tattered rags of Celtic Warrior jerseys, such has his stock fallen. His brief reign in charge of Wales has gone from defensible efforts in challenging climates overseas, to humiliating reductions in front of an increasingly hostile and disengaged home crowd.

Looking back though, it was always slightly puzzling as to why Howley ended up as the man in charge. Howley’s previously responsibilities fell on managing the Welsh attack, which since the reign of Gatland had begun, often seemed one of the weaker elements. Welsh victories had been ground out through fitness and forwards, not to mention a healthy dose of massive long range penalties. In attack Wales had been profligate for the talents at their disposal. The least effective cog in the coaching machine had taken over the entire managerial mechanism.

So as the knives are sharpened, and Howley’s back and shoulders becomes notable for the many laser projected red dots that are fixed on him, what next for the former Welsh hero? Quitting would be the honourable thing to do at this stage. Other than Nigel Davies and Scott Johnson, who arguably had few resources, certainly in terms of time with the squads at their disposal, there is now no worse Welsh international coaching record than Rob Howley’s. Take away the Welsh victory over the fictional nation of the Barbarians, and Howley has the worse Wales coaching record in history. Others have been fired for far less from the Wales post, is there any justification for his continuance into the Six Nations?

If Howley is coach going into the prestigious tournament, he would likely be taking on a team that will in all probability have suffered seven defeats in a row, and could well sit outside the top ten of the world rugby table. Is there anything in Howley’s coaching pedigree to say that he won’t lead Wales into double figures of consecutive defeats? Not yet at least, and we should all hope for his sake as well as that of Wales, that the WRU and Gatland have the good sense to hand over the reins to someone who is not covered in the persistent stink of failure, it is pervasive and does not wash off with ease.

In the memories of Welsh rugby fans, Howley probably retains just enough of a position in our hearts based on his on-field efforts to not be completely vilified. But that situation will only remain, and his legacy be assured, if he does the right thing and step to one side. Yes, players a plenty are to blame for the defeats as well, but ultimate responsibility for persistent failure stops with the man in charge. It is the mentality that Gatland used to apply to his players, and it needs to be applied to his coaches as well. As soon as possible preferably.

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Shamed and Pain: Wales, Argentina and Iestyn Harris all over.

In 2001 Wales were on the receiving end of one of their all time humiliating home defeats. An inexperienced Iestyn Harris had been dumped into a vulnerable outside half starting role, and proceeded to implode. That day Argentina ran riot and coasted to a 16-30 victory, leaving Wales embarrassed, battered and broken. What happened in Cardiff yesterday was worse.

In 2001 the wheels had long been coming off of the Welsh rugby machine. Graham Henry’s tenure in charge was winding down to an ignominious end and, despite the margin of Argentina’s victory being a surprise, the fact that a first home defeat had been conceded to the Pumas was not. In 2012, our collective expectations were supposed to be so much higher. This was after all the reigning Grand Slam team, this was after all the team that had come ‘so close’ to victory in Australia, this was after all the squad who many were predicting would be able to take on the All Blacks. Put in simpler terms, this was a team upon which expectation had been placed. It did not materialise.

On this occasion excuses abound, and even the most hardnosed cynics would have to be in a bad mood to suggest that the loss of both Jamie Roberts and Alyn Wyn Jones did not have an impact on the result. Yet the departure of both players proved to be more symptomatic of the problems faced by Wales in defeat, than the reason for them.

During the first half of play, Wales had the makings of a game plan. Parity in the pack, followed by crash balls down the middle. It was working. Perhaps the Argentine defence had not buckled, but inroads were being made, and a points lead was being built. But the second the Welsh injuries occurred, ‘plan A’ went off the field with them. No doubt somebody muttered something to James Hook about a ‘plan B’ but it appeared to be the case that ‘plan B’ amounted to little more than ‘play rugby, and see what happens’. In short, there was no ‘plan B’.

As the game wore on, it was Argentina who looked the fitter, not the Welsh returning from their ice baths. The breakdown was particularly telling, as (what are on their day talented) Welsh forwards, were obliterated by a hungry Argentinean backrow. They showed an intent for victory sorely lacking by Wales.

So who is to blame and what is the response? No doubt fingers will once more be pointed towards Priestland for his game management, Scott Williams for his incredible and inexplicable selfishness and Warburton as well, for where was the leadership on the field? All of these can be tackled, Wales has the talent throughout the squad to deal with those issues. Alas the one thing that cannot be changed is the coach. The inexperienced Robert Howley will have another roll of the dice against Samoa – and things could yet get worse.

Howley is yet to show any real coaching insight when it comes to events on the field. He outraged many in the Welsh community by selected Priestland over an inform Biggar, he outraged many more by leaving the multitalented Shingler out of proceedings as well. He further failed to show any note to form in relying on the underwhelming Warburton. During the game, he pulled off a front row that had operated well against Argentina’s powerful pack,  seemingly for no reason other than that he had planned to change the front row, so that’s what he did – regardless of need or consequence. Yes, there was a severe case of the headless chickens amongst the Welsh team, but this was a team that was set up for a fall. With no ‘plan B’ in the backroom, and little to no form in the starting line-up, few should be surprised at the result that followed.

For next week? One thing that should not change is the front row that started, that was the one area to go well, and those who came on were outclassed. However the lack of a recognised second row adding weight and scrummaging ability failed Wales as well, so having someone who knows what they are doing in such a key position on the bench seems a must. Further back, surely the time for Tipuric is now? Surely the time for Shingler is now? The Welsh backrow were on the verge of obliteration as the game closed out, form is required. And behind the pack, surely the time for Biggar is now? He may not be exciting, but what Wales currently offers is clearly not good enough, so for that reason alone, change seems essential. A fit Beck and Davies in the centres would help somewhat in adding competent decision makers in those positions. As game plans go, less random kicking up field would help (of which both Priestland and Halfpenny are guilty), and given their importance, finding a way to bring North and Cuthbert into the attack might be useful – how these two can be left as passengers for so long is baffling. Perhaps remembering how to offload would be a starting point. Watching the ease with, and intent to off load in the tackle from Argentina was warming from a rugby purist perceptive. From a Welsh perspective, where offloads appeared impossible, it was depressing.

In summary, this was a very, very bad day for Welsh rugby. The momentum of this young generation is on the cusp of being thrown away. Winning is a very hard habit to maintain, losing is a very hard habit to break. Selection and intent against Samoa could have a huge impact as to whether the habit becomes an addiction for Wales – a loss next week and the next Welsh victory may not be seen for many, many months, whisper it, or years.

Bonkers attack on Free Prescriptions.

There are plenty of things that you can take the Welsh Government to task over…plenty of things. In general, the most obvious thing you could go after them on is their inactivity. The slow haul towards a legislative Wales has been as painful to endure as it has been uninspiring, even more so given the legal arse up led by Carwyn’s administration over the one piece of post 2011 legislation to get given the Senedd green light. But to attack the free prescription programme, once again, is somewhere between bonkers verging on loopy.

It seems to be the bi-monthly bug bear of the opposition…well, we say opposition, what we really mean is that it is the bi-monthly bug bear of the Welsh Conservatives who seems utterly incapable of just letting this one go, and regularly dust off the cobwebs from their increasingly worn out complaints before wheeling it out once more. Today, led by the ever audible Darren Millar, were the really shocking revelation that since free prescription medication was introduced in Wales, that more people are taking prescription medicines. Jaws must really have dropped when that bombshell was dropped on the Welsh political community. When things are free, people take more of them…take a moment, you must all be in a state of mental paralysis reading this.

It was reported that several Welsh Tory spokespeople were vomiting with horror at the news that the general public were actually getting their hands on medicines, after all, that’s the last thing we want isn’t it? But of course, the whole point of free prescriptions was in response to the fact that large proportions of Welsh society were not taking up prescription medicines, you know, those things that doctors were telling patients ‘you need this to stay alive’, because they were too expensive. Millar was very happy to point out that millionaires can pick up pain medication for free, but duly ignores the fact that Wales is not littered with millionaires, and that it is in fact littered with people living below the poverty line, the very people who stand to benefit from this programme.

It would appear that Darren Millar’s policy would be to price out two thirds of the population when it comes to medication, no doubt resulting in widespread death amongst those troublesome working class voter groups, in turn minimising the Labour vote in Wales…it’s possible at least. Certainly were the free prescription policy to be withdrawn, Mr Millar would be able to enjoy a whole host of new hospital based issues to whine about, as treatable conditions rapidly turn into untreatable terminal illnesses, and already stretched hospital wards become crippled by the sudden influx of deathbed patients, who might have been fine at home, but could no longer afford the medication.

Just a final point on price, the Western Mail reported this morning that while the cost of free prescriptions stands at over £500m, it is a sum that is decreasing rather than increasing. On top of that, given Mr Miller’s determined stance to cut out this unsustainable and unbearable weight on the tax payer, one wonders how he would looking back over his summer indulgences, where he spoke at length and with great enthusiasm about Jubilee celebrations and Olympic entertainments, the combined cost of which would cover free prescriptions for all in the UK (not just Wales) for over half a century…just a thought for anyone wondering how ‘waste’ might be defined.

We don’t hate the Olympics, but… Cardiff and the World.

We were really going to try and resist this one, but given all the very forced hoopla in the Welsh media coverage regarding the theoretical importance of the Olympics ‘coming’ to Cardiff, it became difficult to resist. For weeks now we have been fed a steady diet of saturated fat based oozing of appreciation for the significance of the Cardiff based Olympic events. Hardly a day has gone by during the last five weeks where there has not been a story extolling the virtues for the city and for Wales, of several football games being played here under the shadow of five colourful rings and the silhouettes cast by ‘London2012’ bunting.

Now, comments from the likes of the chief medical officer for Wales, that the presence of the Olympics will inspire some into physical activity, probably have some merit, if you turn a blind eye to the fast food dominated corporate sponsorship. We are not going to dismiss the good time had by people coming into the city to watch the games, after all, Cardiff is a proven venue for major international sporting events, it was always going to go well. Indeed, we don’t really begrudge the football competition being in Wales, it’s nice to be involved in something that, we can hope, will have some form of legacy for the British Isles. What we don’t like is the barefaced lies spun around the handful of games to be played in Cardiff, and what they will do for the city.

Sebastian Coe heralded Cardiff as a true Olympic City on the morning of the first football games, experts told us of the way in which the football matches would raise the profile of Cardiff and Wales to a global audience, indeed BBC Wales presenters were tripping over each other to tell us that ‘yes, the eyes of the world are all on Cardiff’. But were they? Of course there was plenty of coverage from Cardiff, but how many news carriers were really going to the effort of spinning the ‘Welsh’ story in all this?

A quick look at the British newspapers this morning might give an indication of the profile boost Cardiff was receiving yesterday. The Daily Telegraph, Times and Guardian all carried front page photographs of the first fixture to be played in Cardiff yesterday. Of those, the Guardian elaborated briefly on the location of the fixture, both The Times and Telegraph decided to concentrate their analysis on the furious North Koreans (who of course were not playing in Cardiff). The Daily Express and Mail did not overlook the Olympics, but instead chose to run stories detailing the life and times of royal Zara Phillips. Meanwhile the Star had a full page spread discussing David Beckham’s role in the opening ceremony. However the Independent, Sun, and of course, the London Evening Standard all acted as if nothing had happened at all, for them the Olympics won’t even begin for another day.

Internationally, the Wall Street Journal carried no more than Nick Hornby whining about his lack of Olympic spirit, The New York Times covered the football…featuring the US women’s team, playing in Scotland, but equally failed to make mention of the fact that the game was outside of London. In France, Le Monde was unaware of any Olympic opening games. Belgium, Germany, Ireland, no sign of Cardiff on the front pages in any of those. Even in New Zealand, the other nation to be involved in the opening game in Cardiff, saw little need to put the story on their front page. We could go on, but there are a lot of national newspapers globally to cover which failed to turn over their banner headlines to ‘Cardiff’s day in history’.

The point here, is that despite the great insistence of the Olympic organisers and the BBC, the eyes of the world were not on Cardiff, and they were never going to be. This was not some great promotional opportunity for Cardiff and Wales, and it was never going to be. Cardiff is not an Olympic city, and sadly, it will never be. It helped out, briefly, while the actual Olympic city of London continues to attract the world’s attention. Go back to all those newspapers on Saturday morning, how many do you think will have front page spreads on London and its marvellous opening ceremony? If it is any short of all of them, it will be a surprise.

So, we don’t hate the Olympics, and we don’t hate them visiting Wales, but we do hate being told, so insistently, that this is a really good thing for us. It was a nice thing perhaps, a good thing in that tourism via 30-40,000 extra sports enthusiasts coming into the city is always welcome, and a positive thing if it encourages only a few Welsh children to play some sport rather than watch it on television while chowing through their Olympic branded cheeseburger. But please stop pretending, stop trying to persuade people in Wales that this will be anything more than that. The Olympics start on Friday with an opening ceremony in London, that is where the eyes of the world will be, and that is where they will remain. Most importantly, when all this is done and dusted, and the athletes and world media make their way home, it is London that will be remembered, not Cardiff, or any of the other places to have elements of the games farmed out to them.

So can we please just treat this for what it is? Giving a small proportion of games out to distant parts of the British Isles was an effort in head patting, an exercise is distracted people from the fact that the main beneficiaries of the games will be London, despite everyone in Britain having to foot the bill. Even that is not a problem, London is hosting, why shouldn’t London be the primary beneficiary?! But stop pretending otherwise. Just let us enjoy the games without all the so-forced and oh so heavy propaganda. We certainly don’t hate the Olympics, but Seb Coe and his organisational team sure make it hard not to.

Super Dragon Spotting.

The Newport Super Dragons are back for a second edition. Finding them is proving a little tricky with so many moved indoors thanks to rain based issues, but here are a few of those stumbled across today.

Cardiff Declares War on Bicycles.

And not before time! Police in Cardiff have today launched a new crackdown on bicyclists flaunting the law and merrily weaving their way around the pavements of the city. While a £30 fixed penalty notice might not appear to be much of a threat, any deterrent for the increasing menace that the Cardiff cyclist can be can only be welcomed. A note of caution initially though, we don’t want to go painting all cyclists in Cardiff with too broad a brush. No doubt the majority of those on pedal powered twin wheels are all good sorts, very respectful and such, but equally there can be little doubt that a growing number of those who enjoy the un-motorised means of transportation have as much regard for the pedestrians in their way as a scorching sun has for the last ripples of a drained puddle – they are equally treated as an irrelevance, something to dismiss as were they not even there, and it is those cyclists that are the problem.

Increasingly in Welsh city and town centres, the travels of the pedestrian are marked by the need to dodge out of the way of those speeding past (and we do mean speeding) through clearly marked pedestrian areas. A trip through Cardiff City Centre can be measured by the number of times you are ‘ching chinged’ out of the way, if even that simple ‘courtesy’ is offered. More likely would be for you to suddenly jump to one side as some sun glass wearing blur of lycra shoots by. For too long, pedestrians have had to suffer the whims of cyclists regarding highways law, and it is good to see that the police in the capital are finally taking some action.

Plenty of debate has been stimulated by this, mostly regarding the lack of choice faced by cyclists when travelling. How can we be punishing those poor unfortunates? After all, too many cycle lanes are blocked by cars, while how many deaths do cyclists cause to pedestrians compared to motorists on cyclists? Well, for starters, it is simply against the law for cyclists to be on the pavement in the first place, so it is a very weak place to argue from. But if we put that to one side, what of those concerns?

First of all, cycle lanes, and indeed the dangers faced by cyclists on the roads, are both valid points of concern. While the cycling community needs to be much better regarding pedestrians, the motoring community in turn must raise its game regarding cyclists, who are no doubt vulnerable to the lack of attention given them by many British motor vehicle users. However, there is nothing that forces a cyclist to ride on a pavement. Unless said cyclists is physically welded by the groin to their bicycle, then there is no reason why the rider in question cannot dismount, push the bicycle to the next clear cycle lane or safe stretch of road, and continue. The decision to use pavements by cyclists is just that, a decision, a choice, and one not afforded to pedestrians. Pedestrians cannot amble down the middle of a dual carriage way at their choosing, they only have the pavements to make use of. If the roads are too scary for the cyclists of Cardiff City Centre, then get off the bike and push, you have the option.

As for injuries and deaths, fine, we do not see many pedestrians killed by cyclists, and the statistics are irrelevant almost when compared with cyclists killed by motor vehicles. What these death counts do not cover though, is the very real sense of fear instilled by cyclists whizzing through pedestrians. They might not get killed by the bike, but many are sure as hell scared witless by the cyclists who belt through those relying on foot. Put simply, pedestrians should not be made to feel intimidated while out walking in the only access routes available to them.

Cardiff in particular has a wealth of cycling provisions in place, offering the choice of using roads or a variety of cycle paths. There is no such diversity for the pedestrian. A cyclist weaving at speed through a pedestrian filled pavement, may not be as dangerous to pedestrians as were a car driver to mount the curb and commit a similar crime, but the risks are still there, the fear is still very real, and it remains a crime. While it may be a minority of cyclists who are responsible, it is a minority that is large enough now to warrant firm action, and we certainly hope that Cardiff police stand by this announcement rather than leave it as an empty threat.

A Plastic Bag in the Eye.

EyeOnWales found itself wading into an impressively pointless argument on the good ol’ 5p plastic bag debate last week. In an argument of head banging against the wall proportions, we found a bizarre blogger ranting about the sinister nature of businesses exploiting the 5p bag law to generate revenue and supply low grade bags to customers, while simultaneously suggesting that the Welsh Government policy had been a failure in the first place, having no impact on bag usage, and in turn, no positive impact on the environment (this was all before said blogger descended into a diatribe on the state of Wales generally, including the Welsh language in a wonder moment of gogwatch-esque randomness – suffice to say it was not the most sensibly of constructed arguments that we’ve come across this year).

So, it was with some pleasure that the results of a couple of reports were published by the Welsh Government today, giving some indication as to the actual impacts of the 5p bag legislation. Without wanting to totally rehash the original press release, the key figures can be summarised in 70% of the survey sample now supporting the legislation, backed up by over 80% of customers making use of reusable bags, with food retailers in particular recording an impressive 96% reduction in bag use. This was coupled with the Keep Wales Tidy charity being held up as an example of one of the beneficiaries of the redirected funds from those bags which remain sold, tipping the £100,000 mark.

Now, when the evidence suggests such massive reductions in plastic bag use, with wide scale public support for the new form of legislation, topped off with large scale charitable donations, can it really be described as a failure? If this is a failure then lets hope new legislation introduced in the future has a similarly catastrophic rate of success! Now let’s be clear, the Labour led government in Cardiff is not having the best of times of it, and Carwyn’s lumbering speech today on the trident issue was a particularly good example of the bad on offer. But that is not to say that all is bad, and on this piece of legislation, Wales has a success story, and one perhaps, even if it is held in temporary isolation, that we might be proud of.

Well done WG, you’ve got something right, now work on all the rest of it!