What a difference a win makes. Last week, following an eighth consecutive loss (and a record fifth straight defeat in Cardiff) the latest generation of the Men in Red were staring down the barrel of a gun labelled ‘mediocrity’. Fast forward to Saturday evening and, in recording their first win in Paris since 2005, Wales now find themselves third in the Six Nations table (below two teams they are yet to play). Their position in the world rankings looks a lot healthier too, having jumped from a record-equalling low of tenth place to a more respectable seventh (alongside the likes of Ireland and Argentina).
You will be forgiven if, like me, this latest upward turn on the Welsh rollercoaster has left you dizzily confused. In the lead up to the French game I read an article which described Wales as a ‘Jekyll and Hyde team’ and I can see the point: World Cup Semi-Finalists and Grand Slam Champions one minute and architects of the worst string of results in a decade the next. The victory at a chilly Stade de France was a first win over a competitive nation since we beat the same side in Cardiff last year to seal another Six Nations clean sweep. It was a victory that not only bucked the recent unhappy trend but also left supporters questioning how good this Welsh team really is. So what’s the answer?
If we look at results since the start of the 2011/12 season (which is when the majority of this current squad first came together) then the scorecard looks like this: played 26, won 13, lost 13. You can’t really put a gloss on these figures as they scream one word and one word only – average. This Welsh team have lost as many games as they have won and if they were a league side they would be distinctly mid-table. Not great news there then, but if we look at the margins of victory and defeat during this period we get a fuller picture. Over the course of 13 wins, Wales have won by an impressive average of 20 points. Two of these wins, however, were cricket scores against weak teams (namely a 74 point victory over Namibia and a 66 point win over Fiji). If we discount these results then the average margin of victory drops to 9 points. It’s an even closer result when we look at the average margin of defeat – 6 points. This average drops to 3 points if, for fairness sake, you discount the two heaviest defeats in that time (against Argentina and New Zealand last Autumn).
There’s good news here for Wales. Long gone are the days where we would get a pasting by opposition sides. You can now guarantee that the Welsh national side will be competitive in every match. Fans should take pride in this, especially given the fact that as recently as 2007 we were on the wrong side of a 62-5 result. Shaun Edwards has to be given credit as he’s shored up a Welsh defence that was notoriously creaky. Make no doubt about it, a Welsh side without Edwards as defence coach would not be the competitive team it is (even given the recent criticism he’s come in for).
But the newfound love of defensive play also creates a problem for the national side as they seem to be overly reliant on this aspect of the game. It’s one thing to back yourself in defence but, watching Wales in recent times, I’ve had the feeling that the team are happy to sit back in games and let the opposition attack them. It’s as though the default approach to a match consists of defending for the first 40 or 60 minutes before opening the taps in the final quarter when (in theory) the opposition tires. This tactic would explain why Wales win by an average of just nine points – we very rarely put teams to the sword anymore. Instead we opt to play an 80 minute long arm-wrestle, backing our physicality to see us home. Playing this way means that Wales often fall behind in matches and it appears that we have to give the opposition a lead before we start to attack and play to our best.
Don’t get me wrong – the physicality of the current Welsh side is a positive thing. It’s given Wales a harder edge and has been a major factor in their recent success. It was also a major reason why Wales were able to hold their own, and eventually win, against France last weekend. But international sides soon wise up to the way teams around them play. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the recent run of defeats has coincided with a stubborn commitment to play the ‘bash and defend’ type of game. Results suggest that engaging in these tight, attritional affairs is not working for the team as it once did. Wales should be looking to beat teams by 10 or 12 points rather than chasing matches for 2 or 3 point wins.
If Wales are to start posting these higher winning margins they need to do two things. They need to be bolder in their play and attack the opposition from the first whistle rather than settling into a sequence of training-ground defensive drills. They should start by doing this at the Millennium Stadium where they often look and play like the away team. Wales also need to channel some of the spirit of the 2005 Grand Slam where skill and speed were the key features of Welsh play. I’m not advocating that they do this in place of the physical game but in combination with it. There is a danger with the physical style of play that the team becomes one-paced, one-dimensional and (worst of all) predictable. All too often there is a reluctance to put the ball through the hands with pace and precision. If Wales commit to their attacking game earlier and execute that attack with a mixture of skill and physicality they will be a match for anybody in the world.
But the question remains – how good is this Welsh team at the moment? Well, as of lunchtime today, the world order of rugby continues to be headed by New Zealand, South Africa and an increasingly shaky-looking Australian side. Below these three are a quartet of northern hemisphere teams – England, France, Ireland and Wales. The table may say that five ranking-points separate these nations but, in reality, there’s nothing between them. Wales find themselves in a mini-league with these countries to be named ‘the best of the rest’. 13 wins and 13 losses may suggest that this current Welsh side is pretty average. In reality though, they are right in the mix with those countries who occupy fourth to seventh place in the world. The challenge for Wales is to dominate this mini-league. To do that they need to start beating not only the countries around them but the southern-hemisphere teams also. Until they do this Wales will be ranked, at best, sixth or seventh.
It’s still my belief that this Welsh team have got the potential to be very, very good indeed but they need to recapture that winning momentum. The final three matches of this year’s Six Nations are of huge importance. If Wales can win them and maintain that upward curve, they may just retain the title. Even if they fall just short of that, winning these matches will allow the team to look forward to November and the opportunity to take on the southern hemisphere giants once again. Victory is by no means guaranteed though and Wales need to play with a mixture of pace and physicality, skill and strength.
How good are Wales? They’re good…but they could be great.
This weekend sees a break in Six Nations matches so next week’s blog will look forward to the Lions Tour and ask who has put their hand up in the opening two rounds of competiton.