STATE OF THE NATION: Wales

And so it’s come to this.  In the last of our State of the Nation blogs, and on the day of the crucial game v England at Twickenham, we take a look at Wales. How will the roller-coaster end at Rugby World Cup 2015?

 

Wru_logo“Dear Red Rugby, why oh why oh why are you publishing your last ‘State of the Nation’ piece (about a country your blog has primarily focused on for the last three years) so late in the day? The Rugby World Cup has already started. Surely this is just laziness on you part?”

It’s not. And don’t call us Shirley.

Indeed, RWC2015 has begun, but try telling the organisers that! In a bizarre move (given that Wales is a short bus trip away from London), the Welsh had their official ‘Welcome Ceremony’ this week…a day after they had played their first match against Uruguay. Granted, that was a match Wales were expected to win but it’s a bit harsh on the Uruguayans isn’t it?  To write them off as ‘pre-amble’ to the Dragons’ official campaign? One (mistaken) website went further by stating that the England game was, indeed, Wales’ first of the tournament.

Regardless of that, it was always our intention at Red Rugby Towers™ to write about Wales last because, as suggested, they are the team we tend to write about most. The reason why we’ve left it so late in the day is because, if the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that Welsh fortunes/prospects will and do change on a weekly if not daily basis. So when answering the question ‘In what state are Wales in at the moment?’, you have to leave it to the last minute to give an accurate assessment. The roller-coaster never stops.

The roller-coaster

That ‘roller-coaster’ has been the theme for Wales since the last World Cup (when they reached the dizzying heights of the semi-finals):

A grand slam in 2012 was followed by a run of eight straight losses (including four to Australia) and the Welsh slumped to tenth in the world rankings. This resulted in them being drawn in the ‘Pool of Death’ that they now occupy with England, Australia and Fiji.

– In the 2013 Six Nations they posted a record win over England in front of an ecstatic Millennium Stadium crowd. Later that year, the Welsh formed the majority of a British and Irish Lions side that won a series in Australia for the first time since 1989.

– In 2014, Ireland inflicted a heavy loss on Warren Gatland’s men in Dublin while the summer tour to South Africa was heart-breakingly close but resulted in defeat nonetheless.

– The Welsh rallied to beat the Springboks at the end of last year’s autumn internationals but were brought back down to earth once more by an English revenge mission in this year’s Six Nations.  Even after this shuddering defeat, Wales bounced-back to record four straight victories, including a trouncing of Italy in Rome to get within a whisker of lifting another Six Nations trophy.

The record of Wales since Rugby World Cup 2011 reads like this: played 47, won 27, lost 20. That points to Wales being, at least, a better than average side. But as the recent history (outlined above) shows, this team can blow hot and cold.

So where are they now?

This summer has seen more ups and downs than at any time during the last four years. Welsh fans would have been pleased to hear of the grueling camps the squad endured in Switzerland and Doha as the perceived wisdom is ‘the more time they spend together, the more dangerous a side they become’. Rugby World Cup 2011 showed how effective those camps are to Wales. However, the doubts would have crept back in after the first warm-up match with Ireland where a lack of strength in depth was brutally exposed. Fast forward to the reverse fixture in Dublin and Wales, restored to their best side, looked like world-beaters once again.

And then came Italy…and the cruel injuries to Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb.  Suddenly, the chances of success at Rugby World Cup 2015 looked very bleak – a lack of quality cover in the squad and lengthy injuries list (which we can add a few more to following the Uruguay game).

But, with just hours to go before kick off, Red Rugby believes Wales have a great chance against England tonight. Why?  Well, the injury to the outstanding Jonathan Joseph has resulted in a controversial selection by Stuart Lancaster. Looking at the 23-man squads selected by both sides they look very evenly matched. Wales may even sneak it in one or two areas. Whether the injury crisis that has hit Wales proves to be fatal later in the tournament remains to be seen. For tonight’s match though, Wales have got a chance. The roller-coaster has moved into ‘incline-mode’ once again.

What do Wales have to do to succeed?

Warren Gatland’s game plan will largely depend on the players at his disposal as much as the opposition’s selection, but having written about Wales for the last three years or so, two things are clear: they play better on the front foot and are sometimes contrived to play too conservatively.  In 2013, we wrote a piece maligning the Welsh obsession with defence. Shaun Edwards has done wonders with that element of the game but, back then, it seemed Wales had become too reliant on it; inviting oppositions to attack, relying on their better fitness to soak up pressure and take points when on offer. That approach has seen Wales come unstuck more than once in the last few years. ‘Warrenball’ may have it’s critics but, when its done effectively, it is still very difficult to stop. If Wales spend the majority of the game on the front-foot, they will win. Furthermore, if Gatland allows his squad to express themselves once the game has broken up (ala against England in 2013 and Italy earlier this year), the likes of Scott and Liam Williams (and the excellent Tipuric) will ensure Wales win comfortably. But the crucial thing is getting over that gain-line. Do that, and Wales will do well. From what Mr Gatland said earlier this week, it seems that’s exactly what they intend to do.

In conclusion, what state are Wales in at the moment?  A good one as of today.

But ask us tomorrow…

All aboard the roller-coaster once more!

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