AFTER Wales beat France in their final Six Nations game last season to win a third Grand Slam in eight years, the plaudits rained down on the men of Harlech.
Seventies legends from John Dawes and Barry John to Gerald Davies and JJ Williams queued up to declare that the current Wales team measured up to the storied 1970s side.
“Wales now have the potential to dominate Northern Hemisphere rugby for some time,” added Shane Williams, Wales’ recently-retired record try scorer. “They have a core of young players, strength in depth, a top management and they are physically and mentally strong. I believe that, unlike 2005 and 2008, we will build on what has been achieved.”
Only Graham Price, a member of the fearsome Viet Gwent front row that was central to Wales’ 1970s set-piece, sounded a note of caution. Despite the Slams, he said, this generation of Welsh players still needed to do three things to achieve true greatness – beat Southern Hemisphere opposition regularly, see its players excel with the Lions, and “attain a greater level of consistency”.
If that assessment sounded mildly churlish in the wake of last season’s Grand Slam, it’s now looking extraordinarily prescient. With the 2013 tournament about to kick off, the legends of the past who praised Wales to the heavens have disappeared like snow off a dyke.
Since that 16-9 defeat of France in Cardiff last March, Wales’ form has nosedived, losing the last seven matches in succession. Although they lost all three Tests to a poor Australia side Down Under by a combined total of 11 points, those defeats were followed by home losses to Samoa, Argentina, New Zealand and, most painfully of all, Australia, with a Kurtley Beale try one minute from time giving the Wallabies a 14-12 win.
If any match encapsulated Wales’ reversal of fortunes perfectly, it was that defeat by an Australian side that was there for the taking. Nor was it simply symbolic: this match mattered because it ensured that Wales – who ended last year’s Six Nations hoping to rise into the world’s top four by the time that the 2015 World Cup seedings were completed – now find themselves outside of the world’s top eight. To their horror, when the draw for the 2015 World Cup was made, Wales found themselves in the same group as England, Australia and Oceania One – which is likely to be Fiji, who famously knocked hosts Wales out of the 2007 World Cup at the pool stage.
Losing is one thing, but the manner of Wales’ defeats, particularly in Cardiff, provided genuine cause for concern. Shorn of the injured Adam Jones, their scrum was embarrassingly poor while, without Alun-Wyn Jones or Luke Charteris, their lineout struggled badly. Nor was the pack the only problem. Behind the scrum there was the lack of invention and verve that marks out sides which are low on confidence. Where Wales scored 14 tries in the previous seven games, now they registered just seven in seven Tests. Wales never stopped trying, but only Leigh Halfpenny and wing Alex Cuthbert emerged from the summer and autumn series with any credit.
The defeats have left Wales bemused, but they should come as no surprise because this post-Slam loss of form isn’t an aberration, it’s par for the course. The legendary 1970s sides were consistently excellent – between 1969 and 1979, Wales won the Five Nations seven times outright, shared the title twice and finished second in the other two years, suffering just seven defeats in 11 years – but this Wales side has mixed highs with lows in equal measure.
After both of their previous Grand Slams, their results have been dreadful. After winning the Grand Slam in 2005, Wales ensured a miserable campaign in 2006, finishing the tournament in fifth place with just one win. It was the same in 2009, when they finished fourth.
“Welsh rugby is crazy,” said scrum-half Mike Phillips. “It’s like EastEnders. We’ve been knocked out of World Cups then won Grand Slams. It must be quite entertaining for those watching, but it’s disappointing for the players because we really feel the lows. Still, we’re working hard and I’m sure there will be some big wins around the corner.”
That remains a moot point. Some of the reasons for Wales’ poor run of results in the summer and autumn are being addressed, especially the horrific injury list. Wales struggle for strength in depth, so to lose a dozen top players, including flanker Dan Lydiate, second row Alun-Wyn Jones, centre Jonathan Davies and monumental tighthead Adam Jones, was a huge blow. So too was the spectacular loss of form of openside Sam Warburton, who was until recently seen as a Lions captain in waiting, No.8 Toby Faletau, Mike Phillips and wing George North. Wales will be hoping that the return of important players such as Davies and Adam Jones will inspire misfiring team-mates.
Yet the absence of key players is not the real reason for the slump, says former England and Lions stand-off Stuart Barnes. “Wales won five consecutive Six Nations matches last season, playing mediocre rugby against mediocre teams,” says the Sky analyst. Since then, says Barnes, their limited grinding game has been found out by more dynamic Southern Hemisphere teams, who have also worked out that if they pressure the Welsh scrum, are aggressive at the breakdown and are up quickly on Jamie Roberts, Wales struggle to fire. Certainly, few are predicting a glorious Six Nations for Wales, with the bookies making them 5/1 fourth favourites.
There is certainly an unmistakable ennui about Welsh rugby at the minute, and not just at Test level. At club level, the Ospreys and Scarlets remain competitive in the RaboDirect Pro12, but in the Heineken Cup the three Welsh regions have won just three games between them. Attendances are in freefall and things are so worrying that Roger Lewis, the chief executive of the WRU, last year commissioned accountants PriceWaterhouse Coopers to produce a report on the issues facing the professional game in Wales.
Another reason for the travails of Wales’ clubs – the departure of a whole slew of top players, mainly to France – may also have contributed to the champions’ slump. Welsh players have always been notoriously bad travellers, and not only are many of the players who have gone to France no longer playing every week with their Wales team-mates, several seem to have also lost form.
The final, and perhaps most important, possible reason for Wales’ loss of form is their coaching team. Not only did Warren Gatland break both heels in a fall off a ladder in New Zealand last April, forcing him to miss the summer tour but, when he was appointed Lions coach in September last year, he handed the Six Nations reins to backs coach Rob Howley, who has yet to convince as a caretaker head coach.
But at least Wales have one thing in their favour. With the exception of France, none of the other sides is up to much either. For all the heat generated by beating a sick All Blacks team, the only other team England defeated in their seven games in the summer and autumn was Fiji. Ireland won just one of their five matches and conceded 124 points in three games against the All Blacks. Italy won the three easier games of their six matches and Scotland won their three summer games before losing three on the bounce at home. Only France, who won four out of their five games, had an even half-decent second half to 2012. Wales, you are not alone.
After winning the Grand Slam in 2012 Wales lost seven successive Test matches
9 June: Australia (A) 19-27
16 June: Australia (A) 23-25
23 June: Australia (A) 19-20
10 Nov: Argentina (H) 12-26
16 Nov: Samoa (H) 19-26
24 Nov: New Zealand (H) 10-33
1 Dec: Australia (H) 12-14