By Rich Jones
Since suffering a humiliating 32-8 defeat against Australia on November 5, the entire landscape of Welsh rugby has come under the spotlight.
Being beaten by one of their Southern Hemisphere counterparts was certainly nothing new for Wales, but it was the manner of the loss which sparked concern and frustration amongst supporters.
Having come within a whisker of defeating the Wallabies on a number of occasions in recent years, there was a sense of optimism at the Principality Stadium.
Michael Cheika’s side were coming off the back of a subdued Rugby Championship campaign, whilst Wales were determined to begin their Autumn Internationals on a high.
Instead, they were subjected to an Australian masterclass, with their incisive, fast-paced rugby often resembling a hot knife carving through butter as the Welsh defence failed to find an answer.
It was undoubtedly a wake-up call for Wales, who appear further away from World rugby’s elite sides then they have done for a considerable amount of time.
But just why have Rob Howley’s side fallen so far behind?
Former Wales flanker Martyn Williams predicted the problems a few days before their clash with the Wallabies, stating that the Guinness Pro 12 simply does not prepare Welsh players for such intense international tests.
Speaking at a Welsh rugby debate hosted by Wales Online, he revealed his concern that a lack of matches against top-level matches may leave several players unprepared.
It is hard to argue with Williams’ point. The standard of rugby in the Guinness Pro 12 has left a lot to be desired at times in recent years, with the introduction of Italian club sides doing little to help the overall quality of the competition.
Whilst Wales struggling to defeat New Zealand and Australia is a long-running issue – they have beaten Australia just 10 times in history and have not managed to overcome the All Blacks since 1953 – the inception of the Celtic League back in 2001 brought high hopes of an upturn in fortunes.
Fast forward 15 years and their encounters with top-tier nations New Zealand, Australia and South Africa since the creation of the regional system have yielded a dismal 49 defeats with only three wins and one draw.
With the gulf between Wales and the Southern Hemisphere sides arguably at its widest in recent memory, it would appear Williams’ concerns about the club system where the majority of their side ply their trade is justified.
His point is strengthened by the fact that Ross Moriarty, playing for Gloucester in the English Premiership, stepped into the unfamiliar No.8 role and was arguably Man of the Match despite his minimal international experience.
Moriarty was one of the few Welsh players who looked prepared for the intensity of the Wallabies – something possibly aided by his experience playing across the border.
Yet it is impossible to entirely blame the Pro12 for Wales’ issues, particularly after witnessing Ireland’s dramatic victory over New Zealand.
Every single member of Joe Schmidt’s heroic side ply their trade in the regional competition, and their convincing success against the dominant All Blacks demonstrates the club system cannot be held responsible for Wales’ humbling failure.
It seems that the biggest issue is the struggles of the Welsh regions in Europe, with only the Scarlets competing in the Champions Cup.
The regional system definitely possesses a number of positives, most notably the chance for international colleagues to build up partnerships by also playing together at club level.
But without the chance to test themselves sporadically against Europe’s top-tier clubs, there is a distinct lack of quality in the fixture list.
Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons and the Ospreys have been competing with second-rate French and English clubs in the Challenge Cup, and until they climb up the Pro12 table and return to the Champions Cup fold then Welsh players may struggle to prepare for facing top class opposition.
There is undoubtedly no quick-fix for Wales, but it has been clear for some time a change in culture is required.
Attempts to introduce an increasingly expansive brand of rugby have proved more difficult than expected, although it can only be hoped future generations of players will be brought up with a new approach.
In the short term, the investment from the WRU in Central Contracts to keep their top players in the country is a step in the right direction.
The commitment to strengthen regional sides should help them return to the top tier of European Rugby in the near future, something which can only be positive for the national team.
The recruitment of Southern Hemisphere players, particularly backs, could also be a useful tool in the development of the Wales side.
The arrival of exciting centre Willis Halaholo from Super Rugby side the Hurricanes looks set to give the Cardiff Blues a new dimension in attack, and the presence of similar flair players can only help as Wales look to embed a more cutting-edge, expansive style of play.
Realistically, the gap between Wales and Australia is probably not as vast as it appeared on November 5.
They were most likely caught off guard against a Wallabies side keen to prove a point after losing out in the Rugby Championship.
Yet it would be naïve to pretend there is not plenty of work to be done both on and off the field if Wales are to replicate their recent Six Nations success against the elite Southern Hemisphere.
Although the Pro12 is not a perfect formula for international success, it cannot be held responsible for the shortcomings of the national team.
After a wake-up call, supporters can only hope a change in approach will pay dividends in the long run and allow Wales to eventually establish themselves as a regular threat to the dominant Southern Hemisphere.