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.