Wales were hardly favourites heading into perhaps the most competitive Six Nations Championship yet, but a fifth place finish will surely go down as one of their most underwhelming performances in recent years.
There have been positives, but there have also been overwhelming negatives. A tournament in which they surrendered a stellar record to the Scottish and French, and ended with just two wins, won’t fill the land of the dragon with optimism. Just where did it go wrong and how difficult are things to change?
Italy in Rome was an ideal start to get the motor running and everybody heading in the right direction. A win was the absolute minimum conceivable result, however a laboured victory left many worried at the first hurdle.
George North’s length of the field solo effort seemed to paper over the cracks of a lack of creativity and guile. Every other side picked up winning bonus points for scoring more than four tries against Italy, but Wales only managed three.
It was also viewed by many as a scorned opportunity to give an opportunity to several individuals pushing hard for a starting spot. Sam Davies and Thomas Young were two players who many were tipping for inclusion, giving Wales the opportunity to play a slightly more expansive and combative game.
Interim Head Coach Rob Howley decided against giving a start to any of the seven uncapped players he included in the wider squad however, and many predicted Wales would rue this later in the tournament.
England at home a week later was very positive, for 76 minutes at least. Wales were dynamic, they scored tries and for most part they bullied England. Ross Moriarty probably had the finest 54 minutes of his life, he’d have probably had the best game of his life had Howley not dragged him off kicking and screaming so early.
Despite their valiant efforts against the eventual champions, Wales learnt the harshest of lessons. As Jonathan Davies kicked infield instead of into row Z, Elliot Daly taught them rugby is a game played up to and beyond 80 minutes; a lesson that Wayne Barnes and a little French doctor would repeat later on.
Games against Scotland have provided plenty of pleasure for Wales recently, winning ten games on the bounce. Murrayfield this year just proved a house of pain and suffering as defence went missing and an inability to create when under pressure proved fatal.
Soul searching commenced, and extraordinary pressure from the Welsh public landed on the shoulders of Howley and his coaching team. Calls to make drastic changes to the starting XV were louder than ever, but surprisingly to everybody involved with Welsh rugby, Howley didn’t change a thing.
His decision was vindicated when Wales produced a similarly attritional performance to the English game, and successful attack off first phase ball proved Wales are capable of beating anybody on their day. It wasn’t perfect, but the previous symptoms of ineptitude were seemingly confined to sensationalism.
Paris a week later was eventful, bonkers, ridiculous and obscure in equal amounts. How much we can read into that eventful afternoon is unclear. One thing is certain however; Wales again lacked attacking content. They didn’t score a try, while France managed two. The difference in the tightest of games.
That lack of attacking impetus was the common reoccurring theme over the course of Wales’ Six Nations campaign. Time and time again Wales failed to turn possession and territory into points in critical moments in games.
Wales’ defence was characteristically resolute, conceding just seven tries across the tournament and regularly stood up to some of the tournament’s fiercest sieges. However, they only managed eight tries in their five games. Compare that to England’s 16 and Ireland’s 14, and you start to form a correlation between a team’s ability to score tries and its ranking in the tournament.
This inability to find creativity isn’t a new phenomenon in Wales, accept that they managed 17 tries last year and 13 in 2015. It would appear their attacking proficiency is getting worse with time, and as the global game seems to be moving toward being attack oriented with an emphasis on try scoring, Wales may be being left behind.
Has 2017 been a step backwards? Or have other teams just begun to overtake Wales? The truth is probably a mixture of the two. France and Scotland are evolving and becoming rugby powers once again, Ireland and England are rightfully two of the finest sides in world rugby. Wales appear to have stagnated, and as the river of world rugby flows past them, stagnation can mean moving backwards.
They’ve missed opportunities to field talented prospects such as Davies, Young and Evans. The Biggar-Williams-Davies triumvirate in midfield hasn’t yielded enough try scoring opportunities. The closer the next World Cup becomes, the harder it’ll be to give opportunities to the untested.
Wales have only given new caps to three players since the last world cup, inadequately low compared to other world powers. They risk heading to Japan in 2019 with a team as opposed to a squad, and a stagnant one at that.