Don’t panic was the message given by Wayne Pivac after Wales’ Six Nations defeat in Dublin. It’s a response shared by Geraint Powell, who says Rome wasn’t built in a day even if the Italians were demolished in one previous afternoon.
This being Welsh rugby – where so many fans and pundits only have the default settings of glory or disaster – the upbeat mood from the 2019 Six Nations Grand Slam and another World Cup semi-final appearance came crashing down with a 24-14 Wales defeat in Dublin and the post-mortem rapidly began.
As if transitioning Wales towards a more attack-minded and fluid game was somehow going to be quick and painless, even without the new coaching regime currently being denied the presence of Jonathan Davies, Gareth Anscombe, Rhys Patchell and Liam Williams (amongst quite a few others, especially at centre).
Some might legitimately argue about whether the Welsh Rugby Union needed to make such a fundamental coaching philosophy departure from the Warren Gatland era, but the reality is that the potential Kiwi successors bandied about in the media – Wayne Pivac, Dave Rennie, Chris Boyd, Scott Robertson – would all have entailed a fundamental shift in approach.
Whatever Gatland achieved, grooming his own successor from within his own coaching group was clearly not included.
It’s simply the direction of travel in the elite game, rightly or wrongly, and where one suspects that one or two so-called “Tier 1 nations” would be happy to dispense with the scrum, and maybe even the maul, altogether in search of a more entertaining and attacking spectacle for their fans and commercial partners.
Yes, a heavy Welsh defeat is always concerning and even where a degree of respectability has been handed to the final score for the history books.
Only a very few don’t appreciate that the entire Welsh rugby business model nowadays rests on a reasonably successful national side that brings in the sponsors and fans in numbers and at prices that the domestic regional game can only dream about.
For older fans, there are still horrible memories of the lost 1990s decade and the inconsistency for much of the 2000s – sometimes pretty, but all too often losing, rugby.
But big Welsh defeats, especially in a swirling wind and/or a downpour, in Dublin are nothing new. Gatland only achieved two wins – both in Grand Slam campaigns – from his six trips to Dublin in the Six Nations, and the 26-3 defeat in 2014 was particularly gruesome upon the eye after another opening win over Italy in Cardiff.
Yes, there undoubtedly were concerns on Saturday.
Wales were overpowered and bullied up front, the speed of the Irish recycling all too often left the Welsh defence looking too passive and clearly too narrow.
The Welsh scrum, all too often for Six Nations requirements, looked little more than a holding operation (at best), and the ambition to attack was clearly not matched by the execution and especially when it came to accurate off-loading.
But for all the Irish territorial and possession dominance, the scoreboard was actually determined by Welsh unforced errors rather than by Irish pressure (at times unforced errors to a ridiculous degree at Test level).
It was dropped passes, a weak high tackle and a poor line-out at key moments of the game that proved decisive, together with several injuries in the back line and Hadleigh Parkes ever so narrowly failing to score a try which might well have transformed the game if 19-7 had become 19-14.
When new systems are being implemented by new coaches, there is always in the early days the enhanced risk of system errors and a lack of physicality when players are preoccupied thinking through such new systems.
Physicality, as with so much else at Test level, comes down to very fine margins and a 5% decline can have a significant and disproportionate impact.
What was done in Dublin can’t be undone, and we all need to now move on. A few players should actually benefit from such a chastening experience.
If you are going to transition to a different approach and philosophy, the sooner you begin the process in a World Cup cycle the better. There is no time to be wasted.
This Six Nations was all about aiming to secure home wins over “the three blues” whilst bedding down a new coaching team and beginning to evolve the way Wales play.
The away matches in London and Dublin always looked tricky, with World Cup runners-up England unchanged under Eddie Jones and Ireland having greater continuity with the promotion of assistant coach Andy Farrell to the top job.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 8, 2020
A very poor Italy were seen-off 42-0 in round one, and the Welsh public have become accustomed since 2002 to beating Scotland in Cardiff and will expect the same on 14 March, even without the current off-field soap opera involving Finn Russell. So, narrowly judging the success or failure of this Welsh Six Nations in terms of results should come down to the French match in Cardiff a week Saturday.
France showed on Sunday with their 35-22 win over Italy in Paris that they are also very much a work in progress. There was nothing for Wales, even a rebuilding Wales with some key absentees, to really fear and not even a more aggressive defence under former Welsh defence coach Shaun Edwards.
With France to come to Cardiff and Ireland to go to London in round three, we are still a long way from the final 2020 Six Nations match in Paris on “Super Sunday” on 14 March being a Grand Slam shootout between France and Ireland.