The State of Rugby Union

As 2015 draws to a close it is a time for reflection. It has been a year where the biggest tournament in rugby union came to the UK, the regional game in Wales continued to meander laterally and the laws of the game continue to baffle and irritate.

ChampsRugby World Cup 2015 was a huge success. Despite eye-watering ticket prices and a decision to have football stadiums hosting matches instead of the rugby heartlands the tournament generated fantastic atmospheres and delivered some particularly memorable matches. Few will forget Japan defeating the Springboks in the ultimate example of having confidence in ones own ability. New Zealand played a brand of ‘Total Rugby’ from a different planet against France in Cardiff. There was the controversy of Australia’s last minute victory against Scotland and Craig Joubert’s dash from the pitch. Wales overcame all the odds created by a lengthy injury list against England to pull off a famous win. The hosts failing to emerge from their pool, Stuart Lancaster losing his job and the entire Sam Burgess saga was pure sporting soap opera. The final match itself also provided a tremendous advert for the sport with plenty of action and drama, ably controlled by a Welshman.

WRU-home-kit-5-playersThe relationship between the Welsh Rugby Union and the professional regional teams has certainly been strained in recent years and 2015 was no different. Not that long ago we had the Faletau affair with the talented No. 8 venturing to Bath anyway, leaving the Dragons with no transfer fee and the WRU left with egg on their face. It is a peculiar situation with the Union trying to attract it’s big name stars back to Wales with central contracts but their contribution to their region is often limited. There are five professional teams, Scarlets, Ospreys, Dragons, Blues and of course Wales, all with a core support. Plus, there is your local grassroots club in the town or village where you live. With so much rugby available, clashes are bound to happen, people have busy lives and responsibilities, the costs add up, plus the amount of television coverage, it is no wonder that attendances are hampered. In a few weeks the Six Nations will return and the nation will join forces again but the poor players will be flogged further after the tournament with another four Test matches by the end of June, three of which are away to the World Champions.

There is no easy solution. Fans will flock to see big one off games during the festive period and support their nation, proving that the sport still lies at the heart of Wales. However, finding the balance of encouraging those fans to support their local club, their region, as well as their nation is a tough ask. But unless a solution is found, one of that trio will suffer and fade away beyond all recognition.

Owens_ref_finalThe law book, refereeing and the crucial interpretation variations are probably the most debated part of the sport. A demand for accuracy has resulted in an increasing reliance on the Television Match Official hampering the flow, momentum and entertainment aspect of the game. The Maul in particular has proved to be an effective source of points because the whole area has become a shambles. Players join the maul in front of the ball, the player with the ball often detaches and moves to the back in order to guide the drive and defenders are blocked from tackling the ball carrier. Equally the scrum has resulted in plenty of lost time with teams using the set piece as a source of points instead of a simple way of restarting the match.

Despite these issues 2015 saw some incredible matches outside of the World Cup. Australia beat the All Blacks to lift the Rugby Championship. The final Saturday of the Six Nations was spectacular with tries galore. In Europe Wasps have been exhilarating in victories over Leinster, Bath and champions Toulon. In the English Premiership Exeter have been performing consistently and look a good bet to hold on to a top four place. In Wales the top of the Premiership is more competitive than in recent years with Pontypridd not running away with the top spot and Merthyr are living up to expectations in the Championship.

Jonah Lomu2015 was also sadly the year when we lost the first rugby superstar, Jonah Lomu. 20 years ago he changed the sport and became a global icon. His power and pace was matched by his humility. Sadly, he was never a World Cup winner but there is no greater tribute to Lomu and the equally imposing Jerry Collins, than having later All Black icons McCaw, Carter and others successfully retaining their trophy and cementing their place as perhaps the greatest sports team in history.

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The Sam Burgess Saga

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Sam Burgess leaves Bath Rugby with immediate effect and returns to rugby league club South Sydney Rabbitohs, departing with two years left on a lucrative contract. In total he played 21 games for Bath and made 5 appearances for England, including the Rugby World Cup 2015.

His skillset was and still is beyond doubt. However, the complexities of rugby union take a while to get used to. Many international players have been learning the game since a young age but it is not impossible to cross the codes, for example Sonny Bill Williams, Brad Thorn, Israel Folau and Jason Robinson. However, there are equally historic warnings. Henry Paul, Lesley Vainikolo and even England defence coach Andy Farrell didn’t make it when given the red rose jersey. Most startling of all is the story of Iestyn Harris. The fanfare over his arrival was heightened when he scored a hat-trick of tries and a total of 31 points in Heineken Cup win against Glasgow. He started at the pivotal number 10 position for Wales against Argentina and had an unsurprising difficult match with the Pumas getting the win thanks to the experienced Felipe Contemponi. Iestyn was a player rushed into international honours and history has been repeated with Sam Burgess.

Wales-Kit-2003As a result the finger of blame for this debacle has to be pointed at the RFU power brokers and England officials who made the move happen and the muddled way in which he was handled once he was here. Stuart Lancaster clearly saw him as an inside centre but Mike Ford as Bath head coach who worked with him on a daily basis positioned him at blindside flanker, where he played for the first 5 months of 2015. Either way he needed more time in one position and it was unfair that he was vilified for his predictable naivety against Wales in the World Cup by the media and ex-player commentators. As a confident sportsman, a leader and a physical presence he would not have doubted his abilities to do the job but his selection was a decision made by supposedly more knowledgeable coaches who clearly got it wrong. It is an embarrassing scenario and the only way in which to appease the people is for Lancaster and his team to go.

LancasterImagine being Luther Burrell, Kyle Eastmond or Billy Twelvetrees. They have been spat in the face, publicly ridiculed and painted as not good enough to play 12 for England so instead they needed to bring in a rugby league player for 12 months. Those players and every other English rugby union player, who has dedicated their lives to excel in their sport, has been insulted and prevented from appearing at a World Cup tournament in their own country. The only way to regain the trust and morale of players is for the coaching team to go.

Sam Burgess will now be tarnished as the rugby league player who couldn’t make it in union and quit when the going got tough. However, he can hold his head up high because he did everything asked of him and was let down by the people who should have known better.

REVIEW: Rugby World Cup 2015

ChampsSo that is it. 48 matches. 2,439 points including 271 tries. 2,477,805 spectators. Many are calling it the best Rugby World Cup ever. Certainly the most financially lucrative, no surprise given the steep prices for matches in major stadiums. It was a controversial call to spread the game to non-rugby playing locations, such as Brighton and Milton Keynes, but the stadiums were full and the only threat to not increasing player participation was in fact England bombing out of the tournament in the pool stages. A global audience were treated to probably the best final we have ever seen in terms of entertaining rugby. But what of the tournament as a whole?

JPN RSA

The tournament got off with an earth-shattering bang with Japan beating two-time former champions South Africa. That match is what makes rugby union and sport generally so enthralling and gripping. The bravery of Japan to go for the win when a draw was the easy option inspired England to attempt to replicate it against Wales when actually they should have sealed the draw. Karne Hesketh’s try was an incredible moment, up there with some of the best in Rugby World Cup history. Sadly there were to be no further upsets but gone are the days when the lower ranked teams are given a 100 point pasting, the gap has closed. For example, Georgia gave New Zealand a really good game in Cardiff, and theirs was just one of several incredible team performances.

NZ FRA

Australia put in a superb display against England and then backed that up with a defensive effort against Wales which bordered on the absurd. Wales themselves pulled out an improbable victory against England when obliterated by injuries and were unlucky against South Africa in the quarter-final because it could have gone either way. The unluckiest of course were Scotland who performed in a match better than they have in a World Cup game since 1991 in that quarter-final against Australia, suffering a controversial penalty and further insulted by Craig Joubert’s dash from the pitch. Argentina also put in a clinical display early on against Ireland, who will once again rue a missed opportunity at a World Cup, proving that they have benefited from competing with the Southern Hemisphere big guns in the Rugby Championship. I was privileged to watch the New Zealand v France game in Cardiff. Although the French were diabolical you could not fail to heap praise on the All Blacks who played a brand of total rugby never seen before with audacious offloads, skillful carrying from all the forwards and all performed at a ferocious pace. Quite rightly it was the All Blacks who have retained their trophy.

Final

This group of New Zealand All Blacks are perhaps the best sporting team in history. Ranked number 1 in all of world rugby since November 16th 2009 they richly deserve all the plaudits directed their way, consistently winning matches, with a team featuring some legends of the sport. Several of those players have been hanging on, no longer at the peak of their powers, to retain the trophy it took so long for them to recapture. A victorious final will have been a fitting finale for players such as Carter, Nonu, Conrad Smith, Mealamu and probably McCaw, plus Tony Woodcock who departed the tournament injured. These players have targeted this victory as their swansong but newcomers like Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick and Nehe Milner-Skudder have added to the squad and win their first World Cup. In Ritchie McCaw and Dan Carter we have seen two colossal players, the gritty McCaw and Carter’s mercurial genius. Winning this World Cup is indeed their crowning achievement, their best them in the All Black jersey. Say what you will about McCaw he has given everything for the jersey which is all you can ask at international level but maybe it is time for him to sort his equilibrium out, the number of times he lost balance at an Australian tackle situation falling towards the ball was most unfortunate but in all seriousness, what an incredible warrior he has been for his team.

In 2017 the British and the Irish Lions will take on the World Champions and that Test series may have just been elevated to epic proportions.

Rugby video games ranked

Rugby_world_cup_2015

10 – Rugby World Cup 2015

The latest and the worst. As is an issue with modern rugby video games licenses to use the official names of players are not complete, resulting in hours spent editing player names. However, what is particularly ridiculous is that this is the official video game for Rugby World Cup 2015 and yet it is not licensed by the host nation. As a result official England player names are not featured. Worst still the gameplay is particularly appalling. There is no replay facility, all the players move at full pace with no sprint button and the goal kicking is a result of more luck than judgement. As I am about to prove the rest of rugby computer game history is a much stronger field.

WCR

9 – World Championship Rugby

A rugby game released to tie in with the success of the England team, particularly at Rugby World Cup 2003. The graphics and the gameplay itself are cartoonish with players oversized and basic. However, it is a lot of fun to play, the first real arcade style rugby game.

Rugby

8 – Rugby

The first dalliance of rugby union onto Playstation 2 and you can trust EA to deliver a solid reflection of the sport into a computer game.

Rugby 2004

7 – Rugby 2004

Another game by EA and improvements on their first effort. The backline move selection looks fantastic, with diagrams akin to an American Football game but graphics and player movements still a bit ropey.

Rugby 08

6 – Rugby 08

The EA games are difficult to separate. All consistent and great to play. Fingers crossed they will release a new game soon.

Rugby 06

5 – Rugby 06

Gavin Henson on the cover nudges it above 08.

Rugby 2005

4 – Rugby 2005

Easy controls, brilliant graphics, fun to play with exciting linebreaks. Simply superb stuff.

Rugby_world_cup_2011

3 – Rugby World Cup 2011

The official game of the tournament in 2011 it still lacks some proper player names. Having the full tournament available to play it is also possible to see what would’ve happened if Wales had reached that final against the All Blacks. Backline moves are also excellent.

Rugby Challenge

2 – Rugby Challenge 2 (Lions Edition)

The Lions are a rare breed so to get a proper video game where you can play in the iconic jersey which unites four nations, with accurate players. It is quite a lot of fun to play, particularly with sidesteps when running clear against a fullback. Also included are club teams from Europe and the Super rugby franchises. Interestingly, the game managed to unveil the new Cardiff Blues jersey before the team had actually played in it.

Jonah_lomu_rugby

1 – Jonah Lomu Rugby

The original and still the best. Incredible to believe this game is now 20 years old! From the long list of international teams to the iconic commentary from Bill McClaren and Bill Beaumont, “he’s digging like a demented mole there” for example, it holds fond memories for all who played it so regularly. Unlockable teams such as the Barbarians and the Lions add even more depth to the game. Goal kicking was also quite fun, I would often take a conversion from the halfway line when in front of the posts to test the best method. Even Australian centre Matt Giteau posted on Instagram that he and Drew Mitchell were playing this legendary sports game only last week. Jonah himself was a player who could hand off an entire team to score a try, which was not far away from the England semifinal of 1995.

England exit from Rugby World Cup 2015

Eng Aus

England Rugby were under no illusions yesterday. Failure was not an option. However, England have become the first hosts in Rugby World Cup history to fail to advance from the pool stages to the quarter-finals.

I have some sympathy with England, even though I was firmly supporting Australia. One of 3 quarter finalists from 2011 were not going to reach that same stage in this tournament because of the draw. Devastatingly for England fans, it is them that has missed the cut and so the postmortem has begun, despite them needing to play Uruguay next week in a match now made effectively meaningless.

Problems began even before the tournament for England. Manu Tuilagi, who had cemented his place as one of the starting centres, admitted to assaulting two female police officers after an altercation with a taxi driver in Leicester city centre and was appropriately removed from contention for the England squad. Next Dylan Hartley received yet another ban, this time for a headbutt, which ruled him out of the opening Fiji game and so he too was removed from the squad.

Despite these setbacks England were feeling positive having beaten Ireland and France in the warm ups and after overcoming understandable nerves a bonus point victory was sealed against Fiji.

The next game was crucial and there was huge debate about the backline selection. Rugby league recruit Sam Burgess was drafted in as a defensive force in the midfield to counter the physicality of Welsh pair Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams and performed reasonably well but made errors stemming from his limited experience of rugby union and particularly in the centre. England had control of the game but Wales produced the magic which England could scarcely dream of to create a try out of nothing and sealed a famous win against incredible odds.

Selection for the Australia game was equally debatable. Burgess was dropped, Brad Barritt moved back across to his more familiar inside centre birth, and Jonathan Joseph came back in having been injured the previous week. The outside half debate continued with Owen Farrell keeping the 10 jersey following a solid performance against Wales. Up front, Australia were bound to pick the phenomenally good Hooper and Pocock combination and England didn’t react to that. As a result Australia dominated the breakdown, Pocock with 3 notable turnovers. More surprisingly the England scrum was taken apart by Australia, highlighting the huge void left by the absences of Dylan Hartley and players such as Alex Corbisiero who has been plagued by injuries.

At half-time England were already 17-3 down having been cut open by Australia’s incisive running but had little response during the first 40. An inury to Jonny May called for desperate measures as George Ford was brought on to add some more creativity and positivity. A try from Anthony Watson was the result of the only meaningful moment of forward running and momentum but the Wallabies still had total control.

Chris Robshaw came in for substantial criticism last week for turning down the opportunity of three points to draw the game and this was his moment to stand up and lead the team. Instead he looked like a lone soldier trying to hold back a green and gold tidal wave. Much was made of his omission from the 2013 Lions squad but perhaps this performance proved that he was not equipped for the Australian back row battle and it was indeed the correct decision to make. Ultimately that is what happened, through no lack of effort but simple ability England were beaten two weeks in a row by better performances, more effective game management and higher skill levels.

This is where Stuart Lancaster comes into the debate. I have no doubts that his team were well prepared but when it came to vital elements such as team selection, which largely dictates strategy, things appeared muddled, with no definitive outside half or centre pairing to manage the game. The Foley/Giteay axis for Australia was composed and controlled the game perfectly. On the opposite side, Farrell received a yellow card, Burgess could equally have gone in the same moment, and that sealed the result. A well finished try from Giteau gave the scoreline a slant more reflective of the game and England were officially out.

It was disappointing to see fans leaving before the final whistle, the same supporters who had built up the players to ‘giants’ with few results or Six Nations trophies to support that, as popularised in a mobile phone provider advert, will now be knocking them back down. Perhaps like the national football team they are victims of their Premiership competition and the foreign imports in those squads.

In 2007 Gareth Jenkins failed to get Wales out of the pool stages and lost his job the following day. Hopefully, a time of reflection and review will occur before a decision is made on the coaching teams future. There is still that game against Uruguay to come after all.

Wales v Australia

Next week Wales and Australia will battle for who finishes top of Pool A. The positive for both teams is that they will fancy beating whoever they face in the quarter finals, be that South Africa, Scotland or even Japan given the way Pool B has developed. Wales would love to get a victory over the Wallabies and exorcise some recent agonising loses but would be confident facing a Springbok team short of their usual aura.

England 25 – Wales 28

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The score line is only a fraction of the story.

Wales had been written off by many people after Jonathan Davies, Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny, all key men in Gatland’s team, were ruled out through injury for the whole tournament. This was because they had been drawn in the ‘pool of death’ alongside Rugby Championship winners Australia and the hosts England who have luxury of playing all the big games at their Twickenham home.

Last night’s game was the biggest clash between England and Wales ever witnessed because the reality is that one of the teams may not progress into the quarterfinals and the loser will almost certainly have to beat Australia and cross their fingers. As a result the hype and press coverage was on a scale very rarely enjoyed by rugby union, the team selections were debate excessively and the centre clash between Sam Burgess and Jamie Roberts was promoted as a physical contest which could shake the foundations of buildings in the surrounding areas of London. It was even a Royal occasion as William (with Kate) and Harry did battle in the stands over brotherly bragging rights.

The game produced was a classic. Two evenly matched sides, countering the others offence with brutal defence and the scoreboard being kept ticking over by metronomic goal kicking.

Mike Brown made himself look a right plum by getting involved with a confrontation, which was nothing to do with him in the first place, before being put in his place by British and Irish Lions captain of 2013 Sam Warburton.

Wales once again had problems with the lineout and fell foul of refereeing interpretations at the scrum. A well finished try from England became the only difference between the sides as Wales stayed in touch on the scoreboard.

Then Wales’ injury curse struck again. Scott Williams was stretchered off the field with a knee injury after being a threat in attack and solid in defence. Liam Williams took a nasty blow to the head and will now need to undergo all the concussion assessment protocols. Incredibly Hallam Amos also managed to pop out his shoulder attempting a hand off on Owen Farrell after the whistle had stopped play. So as a result Wales had a winger playing outside centre, a scrum half on the wing, an outside half deputising at fullback and the apocalyptically useless Cuthbert on the other wing.

Despite these handicaps Wales produced a miraculous try with Lloyd Williams racing up the touchline and putting a delicate cross field kick inside for Gareth Davies to cement himself in the history books.

That was only to draw level. The win came from a perfect penalty kick scored by Dan Biggar from as near as makes no odds the halfway line. But to seal it Wales still had to defend that lead for their lives.

England captain Chris Robshaw turned down the opportunity to tie the game under some illusion they could repeat the bravery of Japan against the Springboks. That was never likely to happen as the colossal Luke Charteris and colleagues dumped England’s driving maul over the touchline.

Wales ran the clock down and who else but man of the match Dan Biggar booted the ball into the stands for the final whistle to cue delirium and ecstasy from Welsh fans across the world.

In the public house I was in beer was thrown everywhere, supporters hit the ceiling they jumped so high in the air, grown men were in tears and people were left speechless by the spectacle they had just witnessed.

However, this is far from being the end of the tournament. Wales now have to count the cost of their mounting injury list and finish the job on Thursday against a motivated Fiji where a try bonus point win could well see them seal their qualification for the next round.

England on the other hand can prepare for a barrage of criticism debating the team selection and the captaincy of Chris Robshaw. Owen Farrell more than proved his worth but the selection of Sam Burgess will be questioned as he offered little other than in defence and even then his inexperience in the sport may have led to them conceding far more points. But now the match against Australia could not be bigger for England at their own tournament.

As for Wales they have once again managed to pull off another smash and grab raid of fortress Twickenham and whatever happens in the rest of the Rugby World Cup that moment of victory last night will be talked about for years and years to come.

REVIEW: Summer Rugby weekend

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Photo from gettyimages

So after training trips to the harshest of climates the Welsh squad returned to the field of play. As with any pre-season game errors were to be expected and with a very different looking Welsh XV including four new caps. What is also traditional is for the typical excuses to be trotted out that Wales start slowly in matches, which must be endemic across the whole squad no matter who they pick. As a result, Ireland accelerated into a 25-0 lead after only 35 minutes, playing with control, patience and intelligence. Wales responded to score a converted try and Eli Walker’s acrobatics although spectacular failed to ground the ball properly before the half time break.

Early thoughts included a poor start from captain Scott Williams, losing the ball in contact, being burnt for pace on the outside by Felix Jones and stepped by the excellent Keith Earls. The scrum was also a concern, Nicky Smith being given a particularly torrid time. Lineouts of course went awry as they often do, particularly when close to the Irish tryline. The second half saw some improvement with Ireland lowering their intensity and seeing the customary raft of changes. Tupric’s try in particular was one to savour but ultimately the result was already sealed.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 08:  The Wallabies celebrate with Nick White of the Wallabies after he scored a try during The Rugby Championship match between the Australia Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks at ANZ Stadium on August 8, 2015 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

In other headlines Australia beat the All Blacks for the first time since 2011 and won this years shortened Rugby Championship built on a superb forward display. The squad the Wallabies now have puts them in a strong position heading into RWC2015, with the composure of players like the recalled Matt Giteau precisely what they needed in the backs instead of the mercurial but sometimes appalling Quade Cooper. The All Blacks will be livid with certain missed tackles that lead to tries and you would fully expect them to retain the Bledisloe Cup with a thumping victory next weekend. But suddenly Australia have become genuine World Cup contenders.

_84760950_imhoff_afpAlso of note is Argentina’s fantastic result in Durban beating South Africa for the first time ever. Although the Boks will be disappointed by their performance huge credit to Argentina for their finishing of scoring opportunities and proving that having them joining the Tri Nations has done their team the world of good. Perhaps Argentina, confident of qualifying from their pool behind New Zealand, are a decent bet to make a World Cup semi final.

WRU-home-kit-5-playersAnyway, back to Wales and the inevitable discussion of who will make the World Cup squad from this week’s performance. Short answer, very few.

Hallam Amos – OUT (One for the future but not ready yet)

Alex Cuthbert – IN (Still the same player, culpable in defence and runs straight but fits the big powerful game plan)

Tyler Morgan – IN (Makes the squad with Jon Davies out injured)

Scott Williams – IN (Guaranteed starter in place of the injured Jon Davies)

Eli Walker – OUT (If he’d got downward pressure on the ball to score he would’ve made it in)

James Hook – OUT (Didn’t shine when he really needed to but could cover several positions if selected)

Mike Phillips – OUT (A RWC too far, still his typical self but lost the pace which Rhys Webb and others provide)

Nicky Smith – OUT (Third choice after the certainties Gethin Jenkins and Paul James but might be cover)

Richard Hibbard – IN (May not be first choice anymore but still gives his all with big tackles)

Aaron Jarvis – IN (Probably makes the squad with doubts over Samson Lee and Rhodri Jones injured)

Jake Ball – IN (Solid cover for AWJ and Charteris)

Dominic Day – OUT (Might do a Will James and sneak into a World Cup squad but not very likely)

Ross Moriaty – OUT (Has potential but back row is very competitive and temperament a question)

Justin Tipuric – IN (Guaranteed squad member, might not start the big games but will be crucial on the bench)

Dan Baker – OUT (Anonymous game and Faletau is not going to lose his spot)

Rob Evans – IN (Toss up between him and Nicky Smith for who covers Loosehead)

Kristian Dacey – OUT (Great performer for Cardiff Blues and definitely more caps to come in the future)

Scott Andrews – OUT (Probably misses out to Aaron Jarvis but might make squad depending on injuries)

James King – OUT (Back row far too competitive for him to make the squad)

Taulupe Faletau – IN (Starts at number 8 for the majority of games and rightly so)

Lloyd Williams – IN (More in the mould of number one 9 Rhys Webb than Phillips and makes the squad for that reason)

Gareth Anscombe – IN (Covers 10 and 15, plays flat and good distributor, third choice 10 but could become second choice to Biggar with some good performances)

Matthew Morgan – OUT (Doesn’t fit the power game favoured by Gatland but has skills and pace that could unlock a lot of defenses. Misses out to Anscombe but would be perfect for the Uruguay match)

RWC2015 kitAnd now for the new Wales kit. Reactions have been varied. I personally don’t mind it too much. As usual too much thought has gone into it. The ‘Oxblood’ detail (a darker red stripe) is added because oxblood was mixed with cement because of a superstition that the blood of a strong animal would strengthen a building or structure. Also a trim of ‘Welsh Gold’ adorns the shirt, shorts and socks. Perhaps if Wales had already won the World Cup then that could be acknowledged in the kit. Ultimately it is red and the shorts have gone back to traditional white. The away kit, although appearing to be black, is in fact ‘anthracite’. No matter what Wales wear all the fans want to see is a better performance than Saturday and hopefully plenty of wins!