The dust has settled on a disappointing showing in Belfast. A confident, assured performance did not materialise at the revamped Ravenhill on Saturday night. We were comprehensively outplayed by a rampant Ulster and the 15 point deficit flattered our laboured efforts. Our ‘accuracy’, part of the new-fangled rugby vocabulary, was poor and we were undisciplined and lacked key skills at key moments. We slipped off tackles, dropped the ball and generally looked a side with little direction, invention or belief.
I was frustrated at the conclusion of the game yesterday but by Sunday morning that frustration had turned to resignation. What did we realistically expect? Not many sides will go to the Ravenhill and return with the spoils and maybe our hope and expectation is rooted in the glory of generations past.
Realism. A rare commodity amongst perennially optimistic one eyed Turks and the positivity of a bright opening was soon eroded with a series of errors, indiscipline and poor referring decisions. But why the errors? Always errors. Because the squad is not good enough.
The penny drops and reality bites. We lack quality in wide errors, depth at centre and a blindside flanker. Pivac appears to have sent Jordan to the naughty step along with McCusker and harbours no plans to reintegrate them back into the match day 23. This a mistake in my view as both would significantly improve our starting XV, let alone the squad.
Another Gatland decree that has to stop is the casting of Rhodri Jones as a tighthead, a position he is clearly unsuitable for. His introduction coincided with the scrum disintegrating and Ulster emphatically turning the screw in the closing quarter. These Welsh experiments always have to be played out at regional level, totally disregarding the needs of the region or the passion of the supporter. Two way street? One way road.
On Saturday afternoon, the Ospreys, driven on by the increasingly talismanic Dan Biggar managed to manfully rescue a draw against Racing Metro. Biggar’s supporting cast included the excellent Justin Tipuric, another player that Warren views with suspicion, presumably because his head doesn’t resemble a wrecking ball and he cannot lift a monster truck during gym sessions. It was Tipuric’s skill and vision that allowed the ball to be recycled and Josh Matavesi to take advantage of a Metro defence that was in disarray. Bravo, Tips! Guile, game intelligence, creativity and skill made the difference. Imagine that.
Realistically, our playing and coaching resources are paper thin. You get what you pay for and the brutal reality is that we don’t pay very much. As such the pragmatic choice is to temper our expectations and hopes. An away defeat, in a hostile atmosphere against an accomplished and well-resourced side is par for the course. Especially as our four returning Welsh players had all taken part in the physically and mentally demanding defeat of the South Africans only a week earlier while Ulster’s Irish contingent had been granted a week of rest and recuperation following their bruising but successful autumn campaign.
Preparation is key, as Warren is quick to remind us, and a refreshed, motivated and prepared side far are more likely to produce quality performances. The old adage, ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’, rings deafeningly true.
Lack of quality in terms of resources and preparation will equal lack of success. Lack of success equals lack of interest. How do muted, pragmatic expectations help draw support in? Come and watch us, we’re alright. Our star players are knackered and if you are lucky we’ll be competitive for an hour before the inevitable collapse late on. Still, it’s not all about winning eh?
A stark, frightening example of the lack of regional commercial clout was evident in the capital city on Saturday afternoon where the Blues attracted a measly 5,400 to watch their game with London Irish while a little over a mile down the road Cardiff City attracted four times that number to watch Rotherham, despite their average ticket price being more expensive.
The reality is that the cards are still stacked in favour of Warren’s Wales. Welsh representation in the Champions Cup is expected along with the delivery of champagne performances on lemonade budgets. It is unrealistic, as is expecting crowds to flow through the turnstiles to watch regions that have seen their star players bid farewell and head to foreign climbs.
Earlier today it was announced that Eben Etzebeth will be soon be a Toulon player, adding to their expanding stockpile of handsomely paid, seasoned internationals while in contrast, (the hopefully magnificent) Hadleigh Parkes arrived in Llanelli earlier this week to little fanfare.
Reality has bitten. We can no longer even hope to jostle for position at the top table, only to survive on scraps tossed down by the European heavyweights. Roger, this is your legacy. Next week’s home leg versus the Northern Irishmen remains a game we are capable of winning. But increasingly it is becoming more in hope than in expectation.