All posts by MarkL

You must be choking

After the Australian tests in June saw another series of near-misses by the Welsh team, following their failure to take their chances against France in the World Cup semi-final, it’s a valid question to ask whether our Wales stars, when it really matters, choke on the big occasion.

In the final game of this year’s Six Nations, it looked like the team had finally learned some lessons, valiantly clinching the Grand Slam with tight, up-the-jumper rugby in the final quarter against France to see out the win. But once again in Australia, missed kicks, poor decision-making and ill discipline arguably cost us an historic series win.

Choking has been defined by sporting academics as an acute performance failure under pressure, and there have been plenty of high-profile moments of choking in recent years across different sports, from Rory McIlroy throwing away a four-hole lead at the Masters, to England football’s penalty shoot-out miseries.

So what causes this breakdown in performance? There are two theories put forward as an explanation. The first is the ‘distraction’ theory, which maintains that, under stressful situations , an athlete’s attention is overloaded by stimuli such as worry and self-doubt. The second is the ‘self-focus’ theory, whereby performance deteriorates through an athlete consciously carrying out a skill that would normally be performed automatically. In other words, the athlete tries too hard.

Whilst, as a fan, it’s impossible to know exactly what was going through the minds of the Welsh players in the dying moments of the Australian tests, this second theory, that Wales are best when they play their ‘natural’ game, is worth considering. After all, despite Gatland’s successes, it’s not so long ago that accusations were made of Wales being ‘overcoached’, with Jeremy Guscott arguing back in 2011, that the team had “stopped trusting their natural Welsh ability”.

Halfpenny commented, after the final defeat in Sydney, that Australia know how to win and “how to close out a game.” After their Grand Slam success, it appeared that Wales did too. Now, it seems, it’s a case of back to the drawing board.

Exodus of Welsh rugby stars no cause for alarm

Welsh rugby fans departing for foreign lands in the professional era of rugby is nothing new. The likes of Colin Charvis (Tarbes), Chris Wyatt (Munster), Rob Howely (Wasps) and Stephen Jones (Clermont), to name a few, all departed our borders in search of a handsome wage when at the back end of their playing careers.

Similarly, players who realised that future opportunities of playing for the national side were becoming increasingly remote also upped sticks – Nicky Robinson (Wasps), his brother Jamie (Agen), Gareth Delve (Melbourne) and Alix Popham (Brive) being some of the higher profile examples.

So, why the alarm at the recent exodus? Perhaps it’s just the sheer number of current internationals in close proximity who are leaving, or have not long left, the regions. Lee Byrne, Mike Phillips and James Hook all departed last season, of course, and come September, Luke Charteris, Gethin Jenkins, Richie Rees, Huw Bennett, Paul James and Aled Brew will be plying their trade on foreign fields.

But a closer look suggests things maybe aren’t so bad as they first appear. All of these players listed are nearer 30 years of age than they are 20, and with the exception of Charteris, Phillips and Jenkins, were not first choice for Wales in 2012.

A positive spin, then, is that these departures offer a great opportunity for Wales’ young players to develop, with the big names no longer limiting their game time. Consider the case of Rhys Webb, the young scrum half who earned a call up to the Wales squad following impressively consistent displays for his region this season, culminating in his first cap as a replacement in the win over Italy in the Six Nations. In an interview earlier this month, Webb said,

“It’s been a tough couple of years at the Ospreys in my position, with the likes of Mike Phillips and Justin Marshall there… They gave me a chance over Mike last season… and I’ve just kept going from there.”

There is a good chance that Webb may have broken through this season anyway, but there can be little doubt that big name departures have given him more chances to shine and to take on greater responsibility, and the player has blossomed as a consequence.

Whilst depth of talent has always been a problem in Wales in the professional era, there are good signs of another talented crop of youngsters on the horizon. In his first full season, Scarlets 21 year old full-back, Liam Williams, was named the region’s players’ player of the year, as well as the LV=Cup Breakthrough Player ahead of fellow-nominated Welshmen Matthew Morgan of the Ospreys and 21 year old Scarlets centre Adam Warren. Likewise, Harry Robinson has been pulling up trees at the Blues, drawing favourable comparisons with namesake and former England pro Jason Robinson by Welsh coach Warren Gatland.

Also, let’s remember that the young players who shone at the World Cup, such as Faletau, Warburton, Priestland and Lydiate, will still be pulling on Welsh regions’ jerseys come September. As will George North and Alex Cuthbert who, most of us will confess, we hadn’t even heard of 18 months ago. And who’s to say that another few young Welsh gems won’t be unearthed in the coming season too.

Suddenly, things don’t seem so bad. Heineken Cup anyone?

It’s the economy, stupid

A lot has been said and written about dwindling crowds at the Welsh regions’ home games this season but, as yet, no-one has come up with a viable solution to what is becoming a real crisis. Ospreys’ managing director, Mike Cuddy, admitted earlier in the season to being “baffled” about why their stadium is typically less than half full for their games, whilst former rugby chief Gareth Davies called it a “conundrum” as to why the Blues have been selling so few home tickets.

What is clear is that it would be wrong to assume that this is a problem unique to Wales. In 2010, the Australian press regularly bemoaned the alarmingly high number of empty seats at Super 14 matches. At the same time, clubs in the English Premiership expressed concern over a steep drop in attendances compared to previous seasons.

So, how can low attendances be explained? Well, to echo the words of former US President Bill Clinton – it’s the economy, stupid. We still love our rugby, us Welsh, of that I have no doubt. Hundreds of thousands visited the Millennium Stadium this season to watch Wales triumph in the Six Nations and win a coveted third Grand Slam in eight years.

But, times are tough financially for the fans. The WRU can still get away with charging increasingly high prices to watch Wales’ home games and still achieve a sell-out– one, because Wales are playing particularly well at the moment and, two, because international games are an event in themselves, much more than simply a game of rugby. Regional rugby is different – most of us can justify a one-off weekend in the capital to watch Wales play, even during times of economic recession. Paying £25 a ticket, however, to watch a Blues side without its stars, poorly coached, and in a three-quarters empty football ground? No, thanks. I’ll watch it on the box. Families in south Wales are feeling the pinch, and spending money on sub-standard fare is a low priority for most, even for many of the die-hard fans.

There is plenty of academic research that shows how big crowds can improve players performance and, conversely, how improved performances can bring in the crowds. If crowds are allowed to continue to decline, then regional rugby will continue to suffer, creating a vicious circle of worsening performances and fewer attending to see them, eventually leading to more stars choosing to ply their trade on foreign soil.

My solution is not radical, but is simple: the regions must cut the prices of match-day tickets. You don’t have to look too far for a successful example. Welsh football prospered when the national side was able to regularly sell out the Millennium Stadium, with 74,000 in attendance even against the likes of Azerbaijan in 2003. Ticket prices for that match were £3, £5 and a maximum £10. There is little doubt that this was a key factor in Wales getting within a whisker of qualification to a major tournament and a renewed enthusiasm amongst the public for Welsh football.

To their credit, the regions are cottoning on. Kids went free at Shane’s farewell game at the Liberty Stadium, and over 14,000 turned up to witness it. Kids also went free at the Cardiff City Stadium for Martyn Williams’ last game before retirement – only 3,500 were in attendance. The difference, I think, is that the Ospreys performances have been showing real improvement this week and they still have a shot at the title. The Blues, meanwhile, sink ever deeper into the mire, despite a win on the night.

Which comes back to the key things that can turn the tide: better performances, cheaper tickets. Both are in the regions hands.