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Europe Is Still The Sobering Judgement For Welsh Rugby . . . Even After An Autumn Worth Toasting

Welsh interest in the Heineken Champions Cup – in terms of the knockout stages, at least – is already over. It contrasts sharply with the success of Wales in the autumn, so as we head towards the Six Nations, Geraint Powell tries to unravel the contradiction.

It is always difficult to dispassionately analyse a Welsh autumn internationals campaign in the immediate aftermath, for the mood in Welsh rugby nowadays only ever veers wildly between “world beaters” or “the end of the world is nigh”.

The story of the Warren Gatland era has been of disappointment in the November friendlies, relative to the Welsh performances in the tournament rugby of the Six Nations and the World Cup.

It is perhaps more important than ever in the context of a first ever Welsh autumnal clean sweep – which in itself confirms that New Zealand were not in Cardiff this November – to let the dust settle.

And the dust has well and truly settled, at the perpetually troubled and discordant regional level.

The Scarlets are nil from four and the Cardiff Blues are one from four in the Heineken Champions Cup and, in the Challenge Cup, the Dragons are one from four and somewhat in disarray following the recent sacking of head coach Bernard Jackman.

The Ospreys battle on in the Challenge Cup with two wins and two defeats.

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Given that the primary manifestation of structural inefficiency is invariably the resultant financial distress, in particular a flawed Welsh regional model that facilitates neither private nor governing body investment, Welsh rugby will no doubt soon be plunged back into recriminations as the details of “Project Reset” are released.

Despite the perpetual sense of crisis at regional and semi-professional club levels during the Gatland era, the Welsh Test team has continued to punch above the weight of the domestic supply chain.

An opening fourth autumn international against Scotland before the three week Test window witnessed a comfortable 21-10 win over Scotland, a tenth victory from ten matches in the Gatland era when you factor in his two secondments with the British and Irish Lions.

That was followed by a hard fought 9-6 win over a relatively poor Australia, finally winning after so many defeats and all too many of them most definitely filed under ‘narrow’ and ‘last gasp’ when it comes to the Wallabies.

The de facto annual ‘A’ team match against a Tier 2 nation, Tonga this season, has often proved a problematic disjointed fixture for Wales after wholesale personnel changes, but this season saw a crushing 74-24 win.

Finally, and undoubtedly most impressively, a 20-11 win over a South Africa recovering under the guidance of head coach – and former Springbok himself – Rassie Erasmus.

There were many positives, despite the season ending injury to man-of-the-match Ellis Jenkins towards the end of the Springboks match.

Ellis Jenkins celebrates after setting up Tomas Francis for his try before suffering injury against South Africa. Pic: Simon King/Replay Images.

The increasing depth in many, if not all, positions and equally the ever increasing resilience of the kick/chase defence under defensive coach Shaun Edwards.

The performances of Gareth Anscombe of the Blues, formerly of the Auckland province and Chiefs regional franchise, impressed and added another legitimate contender for the coveted 10 jersey.

Adam Beard looked comfortable at this level, a position to renew as the last of the golden generation of locks such as Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Luke Charteris and Bradley Davies will soon enough be heading into retirement.

Nevertheless, it will be the Six Nations tournament that will give the better indication of where this Welsh team is at in terms of World Cup aspirations and especially the two home matches against England and Ireland in Cardiff.

England were only a disallowed try – from former Osprey Sam Underhill – away from defeating the All Blacks at Twickenham, after a controversial ending in their own narrow win over the Springboks, and comfortably defeated the Wallabies 37-18.

Ireland most impressively had their own clean sweep, accounting for Italy (54-7), Argentina (28-17), New Zealand (16-9) and the USA (57-14).

Any victory over the All Blacks is to be celebrated, even against an All Blacks side badly missing Sam Cane on the floor in Europe, let alone one that was the home side’s first ever victory on home Irish soil since fixtures between the two nations commenced in 1905.

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Unlike Wales, Irish rugby is in a good place in terms of a legitimate well-supported and well-funded domestic supply chain. Munster and Ulster, and not just defending champions Leinster, remain in the hunt for a quarter-final play-off place in the Heineken Champions Cup.

In the Pro14, Munster and Connacht are currently in second and third places in Conference A and Leinster and Ulster are currently in first and third places in Conference B.

Given the tendency of the Welsh Test team to kick downfield rather than off the park, and back their defensive line and jackals rather than their lineout on the opposition throw, it will be interesting if any team in the Six Nations is able to find a way to secure midfield possession and/or penalties and to pin Wales back into the corners and test the Welsh driving maul defence from line-outs.

In the meantime, those players sidelined or overlooked in November will have the opportunity to press their Six Nations claims in the Welsh festive derbies in the Pro14 league.

The match between the Ospreys and the Scarlets will – as always – be interesting in terms of Test selection for the Six Nations, and any direct head to head clash at 10 between Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe when the Blues visit the Scarlets might be one to closely analyse.

A strong autumn internationals campaign will count for nothing in terms of maintaining momentum through to the World Cup if it is not backed up with a strong 2019 Six Nations campaign.

 

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