Welsh rugby is on a high this summer, still basking in the glory of a rare 2-0 series win in Argentina. The manner of the victories, as much as the results themselves, has left the Welsh public with a sense of optimism that doesn’t traditionally sit comfortably with the country's fans.
Warren Gatland attempted to put recent successes into perspective in the post-series press conference, claiming that his squad and England’s are still ‘poles apart’ in terms of where they currently stand. Does he really believe this, or is it simply Wales’s longest-serving coach using his vast experience to manage expectations and keep his players’ feet on the ground? So where exactly are Wales as they head into the off-season? And how did we get there?
Well, as is traditional, let’s begin at the beginning…
All the talk before the autumn, not for the first time, was of Wales adopting a more creative game, with the fashionable second-playmaker Owen Williams (remember him?) at 12. And for 50 minutes of the first test against Australia it looked promising, until a breakaway try from Kurtley Beale broke Welsh hearts and spirits, and the home side went down to an all too familiar 21-29 defeat.
One plus was a swashbuckling home debut from Josh Navidi. He was thrust into the number 7 berth after Wales suffered a glut of injuries, but he really caught the eye, along with fellow backrower Aaron Shingler.
But overall it was a depressingly predictable result that took the wind out of Welsh sails before they’d even had a chance to build up a head of steam (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor!). Even worse, Jon Davies suffered an ankle injury in one of the last plays of the game, and we haven’t seen him since.
An abject display against a resolute Georgia, which was only won (13-6) through some pretty unsavoury skulduggery with front-row substitutes, drained Welsh optimism even further. Again, we flattered to deceive in what ended in another pretty regulation defeat (19-33) to New Zealand, before restoring some pride in the much-maligned fourth test, beating a very poor South Africa (24-22). This game was noticeable as it was the (very impressive) debut of one Hadleigh Parkes, who only qualified via residency mere days before.
The results were all too predictable and, even though some good new talent shone through, losing to an Australian team that was there for the taking was very disappointing. Add to this struggling badly against yet another tier 2 nation and this series left everyone feeling flat.
Player of the series: Josh Navidi
It seems absurd now but Wales’s cupboard of back-row forwards really was bare at the start of the season. Navidi, who had previously been restricted to a couple of development tours, really stood up and made the number 7 jersey his own. At the end of the season, even though half of Wales is seemingly knocking on the door, he’s still the man in prime position to hold his spot as we break for the summer.
The run-up to the Six Nations was dominated by two things: Rhys Webb’s international swansong and the form of the Scarlets. Sadly, an injury to Webb meant he never got the send-off he so deserved. But, this being Welsh rugby, we all live in hope that he’ll be back.
Some eye-catching displays from the Scarlets, especially the near-perfect drubbing of Bath away in Europe, meant a Six Nations squad packed with Wales’s most westerly region was almost a foregone conclusion.
And so it was, with 10 Scarlets starting the first fixture against Scotland. A handsome 34-7 victory, with Rhys Patchell winning all sorts of plaudits at 10, suddenly got everyone in Wales dreaming again. But it didn’t last long, with a timid 12-6 defeat to England only seven days later bringing everyone back down to earth.
Gareth Anscombe’s try that never was made the headlines, but in truth, Wales didn’t deserve to win. And once again Rhys Patchell made the headlines, but this time for the wrong reasons. A nervy display effectively ended his campaign after two games.
Sadly his replacement, the returning Dad Biggar, fared little better in Dublin as Wales slipped to a 37-27 defeat to an Irish side already well on their way to Grand Slam glory. After putting Italy away with ease (38-14), a final day showdown with France presented an opportunity to finish a very respectable second.
Well, they did it, but in the most disappointing way it’s possible to do it. A stodgy 14-13 victory, with Gatland and his team of stalwarts reverting to something resembling the dreaded Warrenball, once again left Welsh fans leaving a series feeling a little flat.
Second place isn’t to be sniffed at, but tame defeats away to Ireland and England meant it was hard to see much real progress. The more worrying thing was Wales reverting to the old way, and the old personnel when things got tough. It’s something Gatland has been accused of before, but it is especially disappointing in a season that started with such adventure and a raft of exciting young players coming into the fray.
Player of the series: Hadleigh Parkes
One exciting (but not particularly young) player to emerge from the campaign was Scarlets centre, Hadleigh Parkes. It’s been said to death that he has a Kiwi’s knack of not making mistakes and making the right decisions, but he has more than that.
He is a towering presence in midfield and has given the Welsh backline some much-needed steel and resilience. He could be a key player in Japan next year.
Summer tours in post-Lions years can be a bit of a slog, as England are finding on their ill-fated trip to South Africa. But sometimes, they can feel like the start rather than the end of a story.
Wales began with a messy game against a very inexperienced South African side in Washington. After one of the worst first halves of rugby you will ever see, Wales showed some nice touches in the second half and, despite relying on a farcical try by Ryan Elias, were largely pleased with the 22-20 win. A fantastic display by Ellis Jenkins complicated the race for the Welsh number 7 jersey further still.
Not many people gave Wales much hope against Argentina. Short a few Lions and against a settled Jaguares side in different colours, the smart money was on 1-1 at best. But what happened next has given all Welsh fans heart to sustain them through the barren, rugby-free summer months.
It was only a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into too much detail about the 23-10 and 30-12 victories, but they really were remarkable. Argentina were poor, but these games have to go down as two of the most accomplished Welsh performances for years. Hallam Amos came back into form, James Davies and Josh Adams really announced themselves on the international stage and Rhys Patchell staked a genuine claim for the number 10 shirt. Adam Beard, Dillon Lewis and Owen Watkin also had very good tours. Are we on the verge of another red dawn?
The Welsh fans and management may be sharing a rare summer of love, but that shouldn’t distract us from the fact that whenever Wales came up against top-class opposition this year we lost. Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and England all won by fairly small margins, but in games we never looked like winning.
This is obviously a big concern as we approach a World Cup year. Another will be that some of the big players on which Wales have relied over the past few years were largely absent for various reasons. Webb is gone, probably for good, Dan Biggar is starting to look like a player struggling to keep up with the modern game, and Liam Williams looked strangely out of sorts when he returned from injury.
What’s more worrying is that despite the free-flowing rugby we saw in Argentina and against Scotland, at the first sign of pressure Gatland went back into his shell, seeking the comfort of the players and systems he knows best, and Wales really suffered as a result.
We now know that, with real depth and abundant young talent in the squad for the first time in living memory, Wales can play some thrilling rugby. But you do worry that, if Wales don’t get the ideal start in next year’s Six Nations or World Cup, Gatland will once again lose his nerve and lean on old familiar ways. Ultimately, whether this fear is realised or not may define his final season in charge and his posthumous legacy.
Player of the season: Cory Hill
Rewind to November, and when you mentioned Cory Hill, about 80% of Welsh fans you met (myself included) would reply with some variation of ‘I don’t really see what all the fuss is about’. Well, you’d be hard pushed to find a Welsh supporter saying that now. He was superb throughout the season, showing leadership and maturity well beyond his years, as well as an abrasive yet cultured approach to the game.
I’m old enough to remember when people still called a young Alun Wyn Jones underrated, and while he is clearly a one-off, don’t be surprised if Cory Hill’s career reaches similar heights.
Wales’s best XV
I really don’t know why I’m doing this to myself, but here is my first XV of all Welsh players who took some part in the season.
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