A team at the crossroads

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.

Trees ‘really annoyed’ at being cut down for more pointless guff about James Hook

Trees: Down with this sort of thing

Trees – yes trees – spoke out yesterday at the upsurge in the amount of them being brutally hacked down in order to be daubed in print with more opinion on where James Hook should play, how he should play, and whether or not if he was playing in the right place anyone else need bother turning up to play with him.

“Enough” said trees, “Seriously now”.

In journalist land, the crayons have been worn down. The past month has seen Hook’s wearing of the number ten shirt compared to the bit at the end of Highlander when the really old Scottish bloke had chopped off everyone’s head and become an all-powerful, all-knowing superhero in a big display of lights and fireworks and Brian May rubbing his guitar against Anita Dobson’s buttocks really loudly. It had been suggested that if he were to wear the 10 shirt then just to be safe, the large Hadron collider should be turned off for a bit in case the combined activity tear a hole in something important and invalidate the planet’s warranty.

According to the Grand Wizard Howley, so dangerous are the possible effects of Hook-magic that he will be kept below 5°c at outside centre and instructed to play in slow motion and not to do anything that might excite the molecules in the air around him into some sort of nuclear fusion.

In order to expand the lunacy beyond those paid for their opinion, it was decided that a Pole was needed. Bronisław Komorowski, President of Poland, announced that he was content with Hook playing anywhere but in the pack, 9, or on the wing as long as the guy was given more than a day’s notice and was kind of left alone about the whole thing.

In the event of today’s game not being called off by the marauding giant stay-puft marshmallow man; Come On Wales!

Berlusconi ‘disappointed’ with Welsh Under-20s

Berlusconi: Just another honest mistake

Italian Prime Minister and charitable friend of young stunning women everywhere, Silvio Berlusconi, was said to be hugely disappointed yesterday after a secret meeting in a dressing room with a large group of teenagers from Wales.

The Duce of Drool was very keen to personally welcome the visitors, especially as muddy grappling followed by a communal bath was rumoured to be on the menu at the San Vito Stadium. “I’ll be having some of that” he was reputed to say. Probably. But in Italian.

The Caesar of Seduction (©, but open to offers) shuffled into the changing rooms post-match in a velvet dressing gown, sporting a chilled Dom Perignon and a 30% extra free bottle of Matey bubblebath, offering what he claimed to be a traditional Italian welcome of ‘sudding the breasts’.

The Senator of Sausage (not sure about that one) was quick to withdraw the offer when the teenagers turned out to be a couple of dozen large males. A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister denied there had been any dodgy intention, and made clear that her starring role in the film ‘Maria Does Milan’ had nothing to do with her getting her current job. No-one has yet pressed charges.

Dum-dum-dum, dum der-er, dum der-er

New Death Star: Fully Operational?

If it were possible after only two matches to recognise a theme running through this year’s six nations, it is undoubtedly The Imperial March from Star Wars – the one that appears in the films whenever the Death Star appears and gears up to obliterate a planet, or whenever Darth Vader emerges from his masturbation disco ball for a spot of after-lunch cruelty to animals, but particularly when the innumerable massive forces of the evil empire are mobilising to crush all before them like the Doctor Martens of God descending through the clouds to stamp on helpless ants. It may have been masked somewhat by the obvious sound of “Swing Low”, but to the keen observer – it is very much there, and it heralds a great disturbance in the Force.

Since the dark days of 2003 there have been some fun times. Two Grand-Slams, thanks very much; including sporting a debutant centre like an impractical but novel handbag, and an away win at the Cabbage Patch requiring only ten minutes’ work. Brian Moore spontaneously combusting at inept downtown aimless kicking against the Italians. Mr Johnson bursting veins at Danny Care’s witless over-exuberance. Our eastern cousins were rapidly earning the label “Mostly Harmless” and the world healed over them with barely a visible scar to remind us of the dark ages.

And yet here we are again. Somehow in the space of a few months, a benign collection of plodders has managed to build a new Death Star, and guess what – the mother looks to be fully operational. Suddenly the level of post-match debate has descended to risk analysis of swallow dives and there’s talk in broad daylight, in the open, without fear of sectioning and as if the last 8 years hasn’t happened, of Grandslams, and worst of all, World Cups “coming home”. In these moments, the Imperial March swells to become the only sound in the entire universe.

So, once more, the world looks with the trembling outstretched hand of hope towards France. The fate of us all rests in the hands of 15 Han Solos; amiable folk who can pull off ridiculous stuff when they’re in the mood, but who unfortunately have a track record of motivational issues when the heat is on.

Come on then, France. You buy up all our best players, you have restaurants that close for lunch, you retire at 62 (and we all know how you bleated about that), and your popular music still has accordion solos. But this Saturday, you’ve got the big chance to blow up the shield generator so the Irish and the Scots can have a full-on tilt at the main reactor and put and end to this nonsense once and for all. We’ll be the Ewoks, pissed up on the sidelines throwing rocks and trying to be useful. Hope to join you for the fireworks party afterwards where you can get off with that incest bird with the headphones. Bonne chance, nos amis, bonne chance.

Hits to Gwlad Frontpage Rise by 240,000,000 Per Cent

Due to an unknown cause, the number of hits received by the quite frankly mundane and repetitive Gwlad front page have undergone an unforeseen rise in the last few days. A number of front page stories, which often claim to have interviews with famous people but are actually all made up, have actually been read for the first time. “This is amazing news for all associated with Gwlad” said President Barack Obama, probably yesterday. “What’s rugby?” he added later.

Other freak occurrences that Welsh, computer owning rugby fans have witnessed have involved talking to people face to face, watching a rugby game without typing about it and buying the Bonekickers BlueRay on Amazon. “I don’t know what to do” stated Wales saviour James Hook “Without a load of fat blokes whining or championing my game, I’m lost amid a sea of uncertainty. It’s like I’m on the moon or something.” said Wales liability Hook.

Talent should be kept in Wales

James Hook is set to sign for Perpignan while Lee Byrne, Craig Mitchell and Tommy Bowe have all been linked to other clubs. It’s disappointing to lose such Welsh talent but is it really that bad? There have been unconfirmed reports that one of Wales’ esteemed sports journalists is being head hunted by Rupert Murdoch to join one of his news media organisations. The effect I believe on Welsh rugby would be cataclysmic.

The Paper who already have a 40 year plan to replace him when he retires had a crisis meeting yesterday. Thomson House said last night that it did not rule out asking the Welsh Assembly to provide the funding to keep him in Wales. Some may argue this is extreme but these are the type of nutjobs who think that a maul lives under the garden. They like to fill their time writing to ‘Points of View’ to complain about the amount of sport on TV and must therefore be ignored at all costs.

The paper was the first to notice that James Hook had been playing out of position for the Ospreys and Wales. Coaches such as Clive Woodward, Ian McGeechan and Warren Gatland somehow rate Stephen Jones very highly and keep picking him for Lions tours. Even more dramatically he even gets the nod for the test matches. The paper hints at a conspiracy which allows the double grand slam winning and former French League player of the season to be picked above others when you might ask, what has he done?

The ability to see the trees and the wood and the bark for the leaves is typical of this type of sports journalist. The paper which currently holds the record for the use of the words ‘superb’ and ‘mesmerising’ in one article was the first to coin the tag ‘galacticos’ when referring to Real Madrid. The journalist in question last night said “what people don’t realise is if I had been a few inches taller I would have been as good as James Hook, a few more inches and pounds then I would have been up there with Jerry Collins”.

The journalist, who lives in a bedsit above the Top Gun chip shop in Whitchurch cannot be named for legal reasons.