Ger Gilroy and Eoin Sheahan from the 'Off The Ball' show labelled Wales a “rubbish team” that Ireland could “absolutely annihilate” this weekend. Gilroy then continued to state, “They are just rubbish. They have fallen so far in the stocks of this show that they don’t even merit a mention on the week where we are going to thrash them."
The legendary Welsh maestro Shane Williams also declared, "I do think [Ireland] are more advanced in the way they want to play and are far more comfortable in the way they want to play. Wales are still trying to find their feet."
BBC's Gareth Griffiths reported, "Pivac can therefore experiment, but he knows he cannot afford many more defeats before the demanding Welsh public start asking questions about whether he is the man to take Wales to the next World Cup."
That's three damning statements from three very different platforms. The social sphere has put Wales into the same bracket as Italy, making them one of the favourites for the wooden spoon. The professional punditry sphere, Williams' case, can't find another possible victory in the tournament outside of the clash with Italy. Even the general media sphere which, to be fair, is doing the BBC a bit too much justice in the Rugby world, are predicting a coach culling by the end of the tournament. It must have been thirty years since Wales had been written off this comprehensively across all forms of sports journalism.
Unfortunately, I can't really disregard the comments that have been made about this Welsh setup since the results on the pitch over the last 14 months have been pretty woeful. Not just that, the performances have left little inspiration for fans to get particularly excited about with heavy defeats from Ireland, a one-sided slug fest against France, two defeats to their English rivals and a hugely disappointing loss to an under-strength Scotland side. Even in the ANC, the lack of cohesion and chemistry led to some rough viewing that showed little of the attacking flair that Pivac was brought in to implement.
If you're reading this then you likely already know all of this. However, I think there is reason to be hopeful if you're a Wales fan. Although the ANC was far from a vintage campaign for the men in red, outside of the young French side, the performances were shockingly poor across the board. The match against England showed that they could still make life incredibly uncomfortable for teams that have a ready-built winning mentality. They have experience, they have some highly disruptive players, they show passion on the pitch, they are just lacking a clear strategy.
Wales largely fell apart in two key areas, areas that they weren't miles away from turning back around. The breakdown/set-piece and the structure of their attack.
Starting with the breakdown, Ireland tore through Wales at each ruck, won opposition ball uncontested and dominated the fringe physicality. Wales didn't have Navidi, Tipuric looked to be a little out of form and young Wainwright couldn't compete with the savvy back row partnerships built in Farrell's new system. It wasn't helped by the clear decline of the physical presence Alun Wyn Jones usually employs and the front row battering at scrum time young Carré had to endure. With Lydiate and Navidi likely to make the match-day squad, that's a lot of international quality and experience that can contribute immediately in a problem area. Also with Wyn Jones and Tomas Francis entering the fold as likely starters this weekend, the scrum should look far more assured, or at the very least, far less of a targeted area.
Then you take a look at the lack of changes they've made in the backline. Hopefully this is a great example of Pivac promoting cohesion rather than problem solving. He cycled through 5 different Scrum Half's last year, interchanged Biggar, Sheedy, Jarrod Evans and Patchell at the drop of a hat, messed with centre combinations ahead of each game and couldn't decide whether Williams should be a Full-Back or a Winger. That's an entire backline of new faces that barely got the opportunity to play alongside a fellow man for longer than a game at a time. Hopefully, by keeping the same handful of players in the side and allowing them to generate some form of comradery will at least get them understanding each others strengths and weaknesses. Once that has been ironed out, then you can start to organise an attacking shape.
I would love to see a backline of Davies, Sheedy, Johnny Williams, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams, Josh Adams and Leigh Halfpenny. That backline to me smacks of youth, experience, cutting edge, defensive ability, territorial awareness, aerial dominance and stability. You then have a bench with Tomos Williams, George North, Nick Tompkins and Dan Biggar who could really change a game around if the game plan isn't working. We've seen a very similar group of players win grand slams for Wales not too long ago, with some star dust sprinkled in by young and hungry players, all they need is a strategy to get their attack functioning again.
What Wales did very well, that wasn't remarked upon much in the ANC, was cope with aerial bombardment of England. You would struggle to find a better set of players in the air than Biggar, Halfpenny and Liam Williams. Also, Biggar, Sheedy, Halfpenny and Evans have a fantastic hoof on them, and they won the territory battle against a very pragmatic England side. It's time for Wales to play in the right areas again and pin back their opposition so that they can use their big backline to punch holes.
There is a lot to be said regarding the pressure this tournament puts on squads, especially during a Lions year. With all eyes on England to retain their crown, Scotland to finish in the top three and Ireland to make a big step up after being dismantled by the roses in the Autumn, there is arguably no pressure in the tabloids for Wales to be instant winners. All the hype about Gatland's replacement has basically been nullified by one poor year. Wales simply need to improve their team performance and their 80 minute game. A couple of close losses or some ground-out wins might be enough to bring confidence to the Welshmen hunting for a return to riches. It's still perfectly reasonable to see them turnover opposition like Scotland and Ireland if they keep mistakes to a minimum.
For me, to discount Wales' ability to achieve is at your own peril. Some of Gatland's sides played pretty negative, atrocious Rugby, but their belief, desire and winning mentality brought them silverware that seemed out of their level. There is something about that Welsh setup that gives me the shakes as an Englishman...