Last week I questioned the suitability of continuing with the same coaching team who have been at the helm of the Welsh rugby team for the past 8 years. Unfortunately my words were not heeded as attack coach Rob Howley and forwards coach Robin McBryde were rewarded with new contracts which will take them to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The talk this week was that Wales had taken steps forward on this tour, embracing a new attacking style, burying ‘Warrenball’ and starting to play in the wider channels. Yet in the third Test they returned to type, exposing their fragility and poor skills.
When presented with an opportunity at the end of the first half Wales could not cross the try line. When New Zealand were reduced to 14 men it didn’t cost them any points at all. As a result, all the team in red could manage was two penalty kicks. The waste of this talented backline is now verging on the criminal but yet they retreated back to a kick-based offence and not the more expansive style which had served them better in the first two tests.
Having reduced their incessantly futile kicking game in recent matches it came back with a vengeance today. The box kick and up-and-under strategy for contestable kicks to gain territory, plus the potential to regain possession and build momentum had been reduced in favour of attacking wider channels with ball in hand. Kicks that remain on the field have been a hallmark of Wales’ game in recent years as they backed their defensive chase but against New Zealand it is suicidal. Israel Dagg and Ben Smith cut Wales to bits at times as the defensive system failed yet again.
Wales players falling off one-on-one tackles has almost become the norm with perpetual turnstiles such as Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe suffering from being isolated at fullback instead of their preferred Outside Half position where they receive backrow support. It was in these moments that Wales missed the reliability of Leigh Halfpenny but even his full blown tackle attempts often result in him injuring himself through poor technique and head positioning. Once again the intended defensive system of blitz and drift falls apart with a simple inside step or hard running at gaps and support play.
The facts don’t lie. Wales have conceded a staggering 27 tries in only five matches. Yes three of those games have been against the electrically skilful All Blacks but at what point do we admit that it is not working. I’m sure some will churn out the “it’s been a long season” cliché. By comparison Maro Itoje has redefined athletic second row play and performed consistently well all season with regular man of the match efforts. He has started 20 matches for Saracens this season (coming off the subs bench an additional 3 times) and in the high intensity competitions of the English Premiership and the Champions Cup but only losing 1 match which he was a substitute for anyway. His international appearances include 8 test matches (7 starts) for England with a phenomenal record of no defeats. That is a total of 31 match appearances. Sam Warburton, so often praised for his athleticism, only made 8 appearances for Cardiff Blues, plus 14 in a Wales jersey, totalling 22 versus Itoje’s 31 matches. Yes it has been a long season for the Wales players but if they spend so much time in the gym and rate themselves as athletes then clichés of long seasons have no weight whatsoever and are thoroughly disproved when compared to the efforts of other players.
Other Northern Hemisphere teams have not bemoaned the long season with Ireland performing well against South Africa and England winning a Test series in Australia for the first time and 3-0 at that. Both nations have relatively fresh coaching teams too and seem to be moving in the right direction. Wales however have not just stagnated as the rest of world rugby moves forward but seem to be sliding backwards on the evidence of today’s 40 point drubbing.