By Rich Jones
With three wins out of four games, Wales, statistically, enjoyed their best Autumn International series since 2002.
But as the old saying goes, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.
Whilst the record books may show this to be a summer of success for Rob Howley’s side, anyone who has watched their performances over the last month will know otherwise.
After a crushing defeat to Australia in their opening game, Wales stuttered their way past Argentina and Japan before overcoming a South Africa side in disarray.
They were on the back foot from the off after a humiliating loss against the Wallabies, during which their incisive attacking play cut holes in the Welsh defence at will.
Their frailties against top-level opposition were left severely exposed, and from that point on they were always playing catch-up in a bid to change perceptions.
Although they put in a professional display against Argentina and showed much more stability in defence, they struggled to break down the Pumas with ball in hand.
They struggled to convert plenty of first half possession into points and were ultimately left reliant on the boot of Leigh Halfpenny to get them over the line with a 24-20 victory.
The follow-up, however, proved even more disappointing as they required a last-gasp drop goal from debutant Sam Davies to edge a 33-30 win over Japan.
It was another error-strewn, lacklustre performance from Wales as a number of fringe players failed to take their chance to impress.
In sharp contrast, the Cherry Blossoms played an energetic, exuberant brand of rugby, which caused the Welsh problems on a number of occasions, and they could count themselves extremely unlucky to lose the game.
Whilst Wales were scraping past Japan, South Africa were being condemned to their first ever defeat against Italy in Rome – their second straight defeat of the tour.
In some ways, the result left Wales in a no-win situation heading into their showdown with the struggling Springboks.
Realistically, you could not have asked for more than a 27-13 win, but it was clearly a South Africa side who are a shadow of their former selves.
A well-worked try for flanker Justin Tipuric sealed victory in the 78th minute and ensured Wales “restored some pride”, in the words of head coach Howley.
But whilst they deserve some credit for salvaging three victories after their Australia horror show, few would argue these games proved Wales are currently a million miles away from the elite sides of world rugby.
Howley’s troops ultimately looked indecisive, unimaginative and predictable in attack whilst their usually reliable defence was torn apart when they faced their biggest test against Australia.
There were some positives for Wales – most notably in the back row where Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric played starring roles.
In-form Ospreys man Tipuric took his chances well and was man of the match against South Africa even before his excellent try, fed by returning No.8 Taulupe Faletau.
Moriarty, meanwhile, was arguably their player of the series and made his breakthrough at international level as he filled in for the injured Faletau in an unfamiliar role in their first few games.
But their performances have left the management with a selection headache regarding Sam Warburton, who was named as captain for the series but led the side out only once, against Argentina.
With the performances of Tipuric and the emergence of Moriarty, there are growing calls for Warburton to be dropped from the side which opens up a whole new debate regarding the captaincy.
Whilst positives were few and far between in the back line, Liam Williams once again showcased himself as a top class attacking threat.
Scott Williams, whilst relatively unspectacular, also demonstrated glimpses of his potential as the ball-playing No.12 Wales crave after dislodging the experienced Jamie Roberts from the side.
The debate surrounding the No.10 jersey remains, with Davies gaining minimal opportunities despite his game-winning drop goal against Japan.
Dan Biggar was back to his best against South Africa, but there is an increasing sense that his limitations as a creative force could be holding Wales back.
Attempts to create a more expansive style of play have failed to materialise, something these Autumn Internationals have proved without question.
Despite grinding out three hard-fought results in unconvincing fashion, Wales left a lot to be desired and should be capable of better.
History would suggest a need to be cautious heading into the Six Nations; the last time Wales won three Autumn Internationals in 2002 they were whitewashed by their Northern Hemisphere rivals the following spring.
WHAT THE PLAYERS SAID AFTER A MIXED SERIES
“After the Australia game there was a lot of pressure on us to come back and perform. Obviously it was a tough game against Japan, but I feel the other two wins we’ve dug deep and played well.
“A win’s a win at the end of the day. We beat Argentina, Japan and we’ve gone on to beat South Africa.
“We had a tough week in training, training has been hard the last five weeks, but I felt we deserved that win (against South Africa).
“I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been great to play at the Millennium Stadium, which I hadn’t had the chance to do before.
“I’ve been able to start, play the full 80 minutes in the games I’ve been involved in and I think of made the most of them.
“I just try to develop my game every time I play. I’ve played a few 80 minutes now, I feel comfortable and I’m enjoying myself playing rugby at the moment.
“International rugby is all about experience, I’ve got 12 caps now and hopefully I’ll get a chance to get a few more.”
“We were very happy to get the win (against South Africa). I thought our defence was superb. I don’t think they had any line breaks, so we’re really happy with that.
“Obviously I have big shoes to fill with Jamie (Roberts) being a defensive captain, but it went well against South Africa.
“I think we’ve probably got another couple of gears in us, but we’re happy to end the Autumn with three wins.
“I think we’ve improved as we’ve gone along. We’ve tried to change a couple of things in the way we play. It’s not going to change overnight but we’ve got to make sure we keep improving.
“All the other teams are kicking on, so it’s going to be an exciting Six Nations.
“We were disappointed with the way we started the autumn, but we’ve finished with three wins. It was a bit close against Japan, but if a couple of the offloads went our way we probably would have blown them away.
“We’ll just keep improving and take a lot from the last three games.”
“We said in the week leading up to South Africa that it was all about the result, and we took care of that.
“I think our shape was a lot more accurate. We weren’t losing players in attack and we were a lot, lot smarter.
“I think that paid off in the first half where we built a lot of pressure. Although we didn’t get as many points as we’d like, the signs are good for us and I think we can improve a lot.
“We just have to make sure we beat what’s put in front of us, regardless of the form they show.
“It’s been an upward curve, and that was the most important thing. We’ve always said we get better as a team when we stay together longer, and I think it showed.
“People were slagging us off and stuff like that, but we had a good week’s training and got a good win against South Africa.
“It’s very hard to change a style of play overnight. There’s been a lot of criticism over the way we play, but I think we showed we can silence those critics and whatever they think is their own opinion.”
“I’ve played quite a bit. Obviously Rhys Webb was unfortunate to get the injury in the first game, but I felt it went OK.
“I’m looking forward now to going back to the Scarlets for a couple of weeks, and hopefully I’ll get it back together ready for the Six Nations.
“We’ve already spoken about the Six Nations and how much we’re looking forward to it. The next game here in Cardiff now is against England.
“We were fairly comfortable against South Africa, but I think we have another couple of gears in us and if we’re going to beat England we’re going to have to go through those gears.
“When we do get together for the Six Nations we’ll work on those aspects, and hopefully we can improve a bit more.
“We’ll have a review from the autumn series in a couple of weeks now, and I’m sure there’ll be a couple of points we have to work on for the Six Nations.”