Everything points to poor Wales season - so look out
George North of Wales charges upfield during the Six Nations match between Ireland and Wales at the Aviva Stadium on February 5th, 2012. photograph: david rogers/getty
Men from the valleys in a bit of a slump right now but a winning start against Ireland could snap them out of it
At the risk of invoking the Monty Python sketch, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”, apart from the Grand Slam of 2005, and the Grand Slam of 2008, and the Grand Slam of 2012, and, okay, apart from reaching the World Cup semi-finals of 2011, what have the Welsh ever won since the turn of the Millennium? Of course, three Slams in eights season is indeed a wonderful achievement.
They are the envy of their fellow Celts for sure, understandably earning talk of another golden Welsh era, all the more so after a hiatus of 26 years followed the previous Slam in 1979.
The current era will be noted for three-time Slam winners such as Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins and Ryan Jones and most of all, possibly, for the wizardry on the Welsh wing which was epitomised by Shane Williams. And even when he went the conveyor belt produced uber strong young wingers such as George North and Alex Cuthbert.
Those three Slams do indeed shine like beacons, not least as in the other 10 Six Nations campaigns since Italy were added to the mix in 2000, Wales have never finished in the top half of the table. Ireland have only once finished as low as fourth, whereas Wales have been fourth six times, fifth three times and ranked last once. Go figure. Most probably it underlines how dangerous Wales can be with a little momentum and confidence. Their chests swell, they invoke deeds of yore by Gareth, Barry, JJ, JPR and the boys, and they play with an ambitious swagger. Only five times in 13 Six Nations have Wales won their opening game, and three times they have then gone on to complete clean sweeps.
They can fall just as spectacularly, mind. On the last two occasions they completed the Grand Slam, in 2005 and 2008, they finished fifth and fourth the following seasons. This season finds them looking especially vulnerable, with Warren Gatland’s appointment as Lions coach reviving uncomfortable Welsh memories of Graham Henry’s Lions tenure in 2001.
They have lost seven games on the spin, and have an injury crisis at lock, where Luke Charteris and Bradley Davies are both out for the whole championship, while Alun-Wyn Jones will miss the bulk of their campaign, thereby compounding the loss of Rhys Priestland and Dan Lydiate, last season’s player of the Six Nations.
Admittedly, in three of those four defeats to Australia they were denied wins by a penalty, a cruel bounce of the ball and a Kurtley Beale try with the game’s last play. There is also the nagging suspicion – as ever with the Welsh – that form doesn’t always count for much. In their penchant for lurching from triumph to despair, they can also travel the opposite route just as swiftly.
Nor, naturally enough, does the form of their regions appear to be much of a yardstick. In ’04-05, none of them had qualified for the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup, and while Cardiff and the Ospreys did so in ’07-08, last season only the Blues had advanced. Even so, this season’s cumulative return of just three wins in 18 matches was especially dismal.
That is surely an inevitable consequence of the player drain to more lucrative pastures in France, but perhaps too the Welsh team is beginning to suffer the effects. Not only is Charteris a casualty of the Top 14, but Jenkins’ form has clearly ebbed in his time with Toulon and there is scant evidence of Mike Phillips’ move to Bayonne enhancing his game.
Key men such as Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau and Jamie Roberts have suffered dips too, as did Priestland before his injury, and a question mark hangs over outhalf. Yet, critically, Adam Jones is back; there is an abundance of talent in the backline; they’ll know the importance of Ireland’s visit, given three successive away games follow. They have a psychological edge and home advantage next Saturday, and if they do win their opener, history has taught us those chests will swell again.
Adam Jones, first and foremost. As integral to the Welsh as John Hayes ever was to Ireland, or Mike Ross is now, Jones started all but one of the 15 wins in those three Grand Slams and was an ever-present in Wales’ run to the World Cup semi-finals, last season’s Six Nations and the three-Test tour in Australia before being sidelined for the November window.
They could shift them too, from Mike Phillips at scrumhalf to Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies in a potent midfield, with a back three of North, Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny, possibly the one Welsh player who has retained his form as well as his goal-kicking boots. And they’ve another blisteringly quick 20-year-old waiting in the wings in Eli Walker of the Ospreys.
Six Nations pointers
Only four times in their history have Wales won the championship title outright in successive seasons and only once (1908 and 1909) have they have completed back-to-back Grand Slams. Alun Pask’s side of 1966 repeated the title of Clive Rowlands’ team the year before and a decade later, Mervyn Davies led Wales to glory in both 1975 and 1976 (the latter a Grand Slam), with that golden era also delivering successive triumphs in 1978 (another Slam) and 1979 under the captaincy of Phil Bennett and JPR Williams.
Six Nations squad
Backs: Tavis Knoyle (Scarlets), Mike Phillips (Bayonne), Lloyd Williams (Blues), Dan Biggar (Ospreys), James Hook (Perpignan), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Jamie Roberts (Blues), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Alex Cuthbert (Blues), George North (Scarlets), Eli Walker (Ospreys), Leigh Halfpenny (Blues), Liam Williams (Scarlets), Lee Byrne (Clermont).
Forwards: Scott Andrews (Blues), Craig Mitchell (Exeter Chiefs), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Paul James (Bath), Gethin Jenkins (Toulon), Ryan Bevington (Ospreys), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Matthew Rees (Scarlets), Ryan Jones (Ospreys), Lou Reed (Blues), Ian Evans (Ospreys), James King (Ospreys), Andrew Coombs (Dragons), Josh Turnbull (Scarlets), Josh Navidi (Blues), Aaron Shingler (Scarlets), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Sam Warburton (Scarlets), Toby Faletau (Dragons), Andries Pretorius (Blues), Olly Kohn (Harlequins)