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Forever Autumn – just how good was our November?

Well, we finally got the job done. It wasn’t pretty and the frantic finale served up on Saturday was more gruelling than gripping. The South African victory was based on a high pressure, high octane defence. The game plan was pragmatic and the players were focused and highly motivated. South Africa wilted. We matched them physically and managed the game more effectively. However, harsh as this may sound, that South African team was a shadow of what will arrive for the World Cup next year. A Welsh victory often provokes hyperbole and the players deserve to enjoy the plaudits but this must be tempered with realism. 2 wins in 28 games versus Southern Hemisphere opposition suggests that this is the exception and not the rule. Gatland was quick to talk up our chances of lifting the World Cup, providing we get a fair wind and the bounce of the ball, but his sense of vindication is unfounded. His talk of bad luck and the insistence of pointing to ‘key performance indicators’ is disingenuous.

Lies, damned lies and statistics. Our key performance indicators are good. Apparently. Following the New Zealand game Mike Phillips described our performance as ‘outstanding’ and Shaun Edwards thought our defence was ‘exceptional’. Such was the sense of injustice to our 34-16 defeat (an unlucky 18 point margin?) that a complaint was made against the BBC reporter Sonja Mclaughlin for daring to suggest to Warren that he may be ‘under pressure’. A member of the press asking a pertinent, searching question? Imagine that.

The autumn facts are these; Wales lost against Australia because Australia were better in the key, high pressure moments. Make no mistake, they closed that game out comfortably.

Against Fiji we were sloppy. The win was taken for granted and a poor performance followed. The backs were blamed, the ref was blamed, and the regions were blamed. But not Warren. Warren is bulletproof.

New Zealand rolled into town and with and with 69 minutes on the clock we dared to dream. And then they cut loose. Ruthlessly. Again, the bounce of the ball was blamed, bad luck was blamed and the regions were blamed.

Those pesky regions, demanding more funding because they barely have enough money to survive but then not being able to fund ice chambers or a plethora of fitness trainers and analysts. Damn their impertinence.

We lost against New Zealand because the All Blacks are better rugby players. We lost because they put us under relentless pressure and we cracked. It wasn’t bad luck, the bounce of a ball or an iffy refereeing call.

And why did they put us under so much pressure? Because that’s the game plan.

It’s all about huge defensive efforts and Lydiate chopping people on the gain line, Warburton jackling and Halfers kicking goals. It’s about Jamie Roberts crashing down the 12 channel and marmalising the opposition, an extra back rower causing chaos from the base and two lightning quick gazelles offering themselves selflessly and running freely with gay abandon in the wide open spaces.

Or so it goes.

Our most talented rugby players are shunned and isolated in favour of gargantuan cavemen. Welsh media darling and pin up George North is enormous and lightning quick but I can’t remember his last significant contribution in a Welsh international game. Is he as effective as Julian Savea or Israel Folau? Or is he Ben Cohen?

As a Scarlet I may be slightly biased on the issue of North. His last performances for us were absolutely appalling. Playing for the Scarlets was a career step that was to be endured. I’m also resentful of the way he has happily sat back and allowed Liam Williams to take the flak for the heart breaking South African defeat. North should have made that tackle. His powder puff attempt to knock Cornal Hendricks into touch was dreadful and yet it was Liam who shouldered the fallout while George remained untouchable. Like far too many of Gatland’s squad.

Warren’s Wales are only too happy to point at the regions and claim that the players are unfit and that the standard of the domestic league is too poor. The players may not be fit enough and many of the Pro 12 games are not at the required standard but who is to blame Warren? This is what happens when you have a salary cap that anchors you to the seabed while you desperately gasp for air. Warren is significant in the funding debacle because he was only too happy to sign a lucrative contract until 2019.

There was no such stability for the embattled regions or the players who were looking to secure their futures. Warren is supposedly a figurehead for the Welsh game. I may be naive but as such I expect him to act in the best interests of the Welsh game, not just himself. If you are happy to take the plaudits in good times then you need to accept the criticism during the bad.

On the weekend of the international that falls outside of the agreed IRB window, the four regions were involved in the Pro 12. Four significantly weakened regions managed to muster one win between them. Cardiff’s victory over Treviso drew a poor crowd of just over 5,000. These are worrying times for the regions with all four really struggling to engage the rugby public and attract supporters through the turnstiles. This is being made harder by the insistence of the WRU to continue to schedule a fixture that significantly weakens the regions on a crucial weekend of league competition. The cost could be missing out on the Champions Cup and what then for beleaguered clubs already struggling to engage support and generate interest?

It is too early to know if the South African victory actually represents a meaningful step forward. Let’s hope so because if not then it will simply be another false dawn that provided yet another obstacle for the regions to overcome. Lies, damned lies and statistics. 2 win in 28 attempts versus the southern hemisphere teams. A damning statistic indeed.

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