The Welsh performance in Rome leaves the team at a crossroads. It is clear that the individual ability is there, but it is also clear that the rest of 2011 could be a very grim time indeed for Welsh supporters.
As against Scotland a fortnight before, Wales started brightly. Despite one ridiculous gift of a try to Italy (the clever money is that we won’t see Bradley Davies throw a pass like that again for at least another five years), Wales looked composed, dangerous, and capable of putting 50 points on the home team. But then came the rest of the match – yes, the bit you’re trying to forget. Mistake after mistake after mistake kept the Italians close enough to believe that they had a chance, and they responded by playing some of their best rugby of the championship.
You could almost see the confidence draining away from the Welsh players, and with the exception of one good passage of play which Gatland hailed as showing ‘killer instinct’ when they worked the drop goal for Hook, they spent most of the last twenty minutes looking like a club side who were terrified of finding themselves with the ball. If they give possession away like that in the World Cup, we won’t reach the quarters.
It was clear from what Matthew Rees said after the game that confidence in the side is at a very low ebb. Gatland took a gamble setting up so many games against Tri Nations sides last year – it was a necessary gamble, if Wales really wanted to challenge for the World Cup, and if we had sneaked one or two victories, we’d be looking at a very different team now. But it always had a downside – the possibility that losing again and again and again would do real damage to the team, and it now seems clear that the damage has been done. As the sum of its parts, this Welsh team is simply too good to be sweating out the last ten minutes against Italy – but the dreadful lack of confidence they are suffering from at the moment triggers a negative approach to the game as soon as anything goes wrong, and that keeps other teams in the hunt for far longer than they should be.
Looking back, the crunch match for this Welsh side was against South Africa in the autumn. To go so far ahead against one of the best teams in the world and then still manage to lose was a watershed moment, and it has left the team with what looks like an increasingly worrying fear of failure.
So where do we go from here? Rumour has it that Gatland is imposing a far stricter tactical regime than at any time since 2008, which on the face of it is probably a good thing given the lack of game management we show so often – but at the same time, who didn’t feel a little bit of themselves die when Gatland said after the game that we’d tried to play a bit too much rugby in the first half? Note to WG: that was when we were putting points on the board.
We’re lucky that our next game is at home, and we’re lucky that Ireland are looking so rusty at the moment. After scraping by against Italy and Scotland and losing to France, they’ve got no more confidence than we have, and they’ll be well aware that we closed that Scotland side out of the game even when we only had 13 players. It’s probably going to be the grimmest match of the Championship, dominated by a fear of failure – but if we manage to make it over the line against Ireland, things might start to change.
France in Paris, with Wales as clear underdogs – we love that. This side is entirely capable of beating France, if they play with confidence and clarity, which they might just be able to do if they go to Paris with no real expectations but on the back of three straight wins. And if we got a big scalp against the French, the confidence might flow back even more quickly than it drained away, leaving us capable of getting a win or two against England in the summer – and that would leave us as genuinely dangerous floaters in the World Cup.
The alternative is probably too grim to think about – if you don’t want to, stop reading right here.
If we lose to Ireland and France, it’s very difficult indeed to see us picking a win up against England, and we’d be off to the World Cup with exactly the right teams in our group to give nightmares to a Welsh side lacking confidence.
The Ireland game is looking more important with every passing minute.