Posts Tagged ‘ welsh rugby ’

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.

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Wales: Here Be Winged Giants.

So we finally know. Warren Gatland has whipped off the curtain on his next generation of Welsh Rugby Stars, and shown a hand that is inclined towards the big, the battering and the aggressive. For all the injuries faced by the Welsh squad in key locations, Gatland has managed to assemble a team that looks threatening and powerful, no more so than on the wings. In the known quantity of George North, Wales have a world recognised threat, who in recent games has seen his space vanish as teams mark him out of the game. Now Wales have a second North, or a first Cuthbert, as the next giant from the wing production line comes out. Cuthbert though, while perhaps not having quite the explosive step of North, actually ‘dwarfs’ the huge North (okay, by 2 inches, but such things count for a lot these days). Couple this with the emergence of Rhys Gill this season, whose form has made him one of the most dynamic front row players in Europe this year, and Wales seem to have found a new raft of players to go with the stellar World Cup finds.

So to their first test, a new Six Nations for a team who will no doubt be weighed down with their fair share of expectation given their showing in New Zealand, yet they face in their first fixture a team who carry their own helpings of national demands for success. Ireland are many pundits firm favourites for the tournament, and who would deny them such an accolade given the way in which their regions are romping over Europe. Add to that all this talk of revenge and surely the Irish will be firing on all cylinders? Well, for the pre-match talk at least, everything sounds very similar to a few months ago, when these teams contested a certain World Cup quarter final. Then the talk was of the Irish regions and their recent achievements, then the talk was of Mike Phillips and ‘owing Wales one’. Scan the news pages, and it seems like the Irish are stuck in the summer/autumn of 2011.

Wales will know though that this is an Irish team that at the very least ‘should’ be high on confidence, even without Brian O’Driscoll to shoulder the burden of the late game revival that we have become so used to. Yet, regional rugby aside, Wales remain a threat. In fact, all this talk of regions may as well be ignored for all the relevance it has to the national game. If international rugby was based on regional showings, Ireland and France would be the only nations to have contested a Six Nations in recent years, and these grand slams and championships that Wales and England have put together of late would be a figment of our imaginations. No, the team selected by Warren Gatland has more than enough fire power, in the forwards and the backs, to trouble anyone, whatever is happening in the clubs game. If the Irish stop a returning Jamie Roberts, then will they stop North, and if they stop North, will then they stop Cuthbert? Contending first with Gill and Jones in the front row, the Irish pack will have serious questions posed of them, and rolling from the back of the pack, an in-form Ryan Jones rumbling on with Faletau and Warburton – they will all have eyes on whoever carries the No10 jersey.

For weak links, the second row. Ireland will surely dominate in this area, and look to kick to the corner as often as possible and from wherever they are on the field. Try and run at this Welsh team, and the World Cup quarter final showing will come back on the Irish like a rash. There is one obvious game plan for Ireland, and it does not involve the backs or ‘open rugby’. Stick to what they know best, and the Irish should be able to squeeze the life out of Wales in this area alone, and might well have done even if Wales had their first choice second rows on display.

Yet the one unknown quantity is of course, and once again, Poland. Ireland will be the guinea pigs in many respects. The video footage released from the Poland camps looked hard, and toughening. All through the World Cup, game by game, the camp was dismissed as all talk, and nothing special, but what marked Welsh performances as special, was their ability to do it for the whole 80 minutes. Bring the same fitness levels to the field, and Wales may well be able to do to the Irish what the Irish hate most, beat them.

Ireland as favourites, no doubt there, but dismiss the Welsh at your peril, Grand Slams come on a three yearly cycle these days, and a return to a Polish spa might well be the start of another one…

The Shingler Senario.

It’s hard to know what to say about the Steve Shingler situation. Public opinion seems very torn over the matter, some argue Shingler should be freed by the WRU to play for Scotland, that the WRU misled him; others argue that he has shown no respect to Wales and jumped for the ‘easier’ international option (sorry Scotland, no slur intended), while some simply suggest that these were the actions of a confused young man. Wherever you might stand, it is clear that there is no winner here between Shingler, the WRU and the IRB, all three, from a public relations standpoint, have lost out.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, the comings and goings, well, goings really, of potential Welsh players has raised some interesting questions. Not so many days ago, Welsh rugby was lamenting the loss of Ben Morgan to the English cause. Here the case was much clearer. Morgan had never made his intentions clear as to where he saw his international future and, after much time spent considering the matter, Morgan decided that he was English, and should try to play for England. Welsh fans were of course upset, but few would begrudge him his choice to represent the country that he associates with most.

The Shingler situation though has upset many Welsh rugby fans but in a very different manner. Here was a bright young prospect, with a great future ahead of him, who had made his claim for Wales by playing through the age grades, and then, overnight it seemed, turned his back on the country. Why did he do it? Was it out of spite for the Scarlets that they would not start him ahead of Priestland and Jones? Was it for fear that he might not get an international cap for Wales given the current competition in the squad? Without a full statement from the young man, we will probably never know for sure.

What we do know though, is that there is a problem with the current system of representative honours. Is an ‘A’ team cap, or an under20 cap, or possibly younger still, an appropriate point at which to say ‘this is the team you will represent from here on in’? Frankly, the debate should not exist. This is not a club contract that is being discussed, but international honours, the honour of representing one’s country. For too long the international level has become an extension of the office for professional rugby players, another contract, another set of bonuses – the country awarding them does not necessarily matter, so long as they pay. This should not be the way of things. For Shingler, his choice was made – he selected Wales, and that is where his choice should remain. If he never gets full international honours, well, tough luck, he should have been better, but that is the only country he should be able to push for, having already made his choice.

What does the future for Shingler hold, it is hard to say? He has turned his back on Wales in one sense, and for Scotland, well, Scotland was always the second option the moment Shingler played in a red shirt with three feathers on his chest, how either nation would welcome him now would be interesting to see. The lesson to be learnt in all this, stand by your nation. If you are one to buy and sell your allegiance, then there is a good chance that your choices will come back to haunt you. For Shingler, his choices came back on him much sooner than he might have expected, and it is with a great sense of sorrow, that this saga was played out in front of the international rugby media.

Ben Morgan: Time to Sell.

Nobody in Wales should have anything other than respect for the decision made by Scarlets no8 Ben Morgan, to commit himself to England. As Morgan has stated today, he grew up watching England, and dreamed of playing for them, frankly, Welsh fans should have been more concerned if such a player did throw his lot in with the Welsh set-up, the motivation behind such a move would have been questionable at best. It is of course a disappointment for Welsh fans, no shortage of attention has been given to Morgan as he developed as a player in West Wales, and few in Wales will deny that there were genuine hopes that Morgan would at the very least offer competition for Faletau for the Welsh 8 shirt.

However, as much as Welsh rugby fans should respect the integrity displayed by Morgan’s choice (remember, there is no sign of England selecting him, he is just indicating where his loyalties lie – he might have given up on an international career by turning his back on by Wales, it is a chance he has taken, and that as well should be remembered and respected), there is now an onus on the Scarlets to act.  With this one decision, Morgan has gone from being a promising Wales prospect, to an Englishman blocking a Welsh regional development spot. At a time when salary caps are coming, and more and more non-Welsh qualified players are being worked out of the regional squads (and quite right too), all of a sudden the Scarlets face a choice, and it is one that must be faced by a number of the regions in Wales.

There is a danger that Morgan will remain with the Scarlets now until his contract runs out, and he leaves for an English team, no questions asked, no money exchanged. What the Scarlets should off course do is sell the prospect. English and French clubs will have a blank cheque approach for only so long, and those hard up in Wales should take advantage of it while it lasts. I have often wondered for instance, how the sale of a player like George North would benefit the wider world of Welsh rugby, with the sustaining impact of a single big sale supporting salaries of many more Welsh players. Well, this is an easy one for the Scarlets, Morgan is not Welsh, and is under contract. The club should give serious consideration towards doing what is right for Welsh rugby, and Morgan’s sale would bring in the money that might cover the wages or one, two, three, maybe more Welsh qualified players.

Morgan has done what is right by him, and all should respect him for that, the Scarlets now must do what is right by Welsh rugby, and supporting a player who is now blocking the development of the next Welsh No8 does nothing for that.