Wales ended their autumn campaign with a respectable 50 per cent success rate, but you’d be foolish to think Wayne Pivac’s side are in a good place going into the Six Nations as defending champions.
To be blunt, Wales are miles off the standard required to win the Championship for the second time in succession.
To sit and watch three Test matches in succession at the weekend, was a revealing experience.
England’s victory over South Africa was an enthralling contest, while France’s performance against New Zealand was absolutely breathtaking.
And then there was the Wales game against Australia. Yes, it was a reasonably entertaining match, and yes, there was a Welsh victory at the end of it, but no-one should bury their heads in the sand.
It was a fortuitous result against a bang average Australian side who were as disciplined as toddlers in a toy store.
Wales forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys should really be feeling the pressure. In the build-up, Humphreys took a question and went on to describe Wales’ autumn campaign as “massively positive.”
Really? Even by the standards of present day, marketing-speak hyperbole, that was pushing it. The defeats to New Zealand and South Africa, and the win over Fiji, had some encouraging moments but if the positives were that “massive” then how big were the negatives? Planet-sized?
Sure, there have been some things to celebrate. The way Taine Basham has taken to Test rugby like a duck to water, for instance, and Ellis Jenkins’ stunning return from an horrific knee injury.
Pivac also deserves credit for blooding a lot of young talent which may bode well for the future.
But under Humphreys’ watch the front five forwards have been knocked from pillar to post, and they have, arguably, the weakest scrum they’ve had in the professional era.
Physically, Wales are failing to win the collisions in both attack and defence.
Pivac’s worthiness to succeed Warren Gatland was questioned by many. He silenced his critics by winning the Six Nations last season, but the autumn has provided them with more ammunition.
In general, he’s doing a good job, with a squad facing up to a period of transition.
But there are issues the last few weeks have magnified, rather than resolved.
Pivac seems obsessed with selecting ball-playing props over strong scrummagers.
The best scrummaging performance from a Welsh side this season came from the Ospreys when Nicky Smith destroyed the Munster scrum, which ultimately set them on their way to a significant win.
Results basis it’s a reasonably successful autumn but feel Wales have been poor this autumn and barring 2 red cards would likely have lost all 4 games scrum has been exceptionally poor and is a real concern hoping it’s just teething problems moving from Gatland to Pivac game plan
— Richard Idris Jones (@idris_richard) November 20, 2021
But instead of including the form scrummaging prop in Welsh rugby, he opted for Rhys Carre and Gareth Thomas, who aren’t particularly effective at scrum time.
The Scarlets’ Samson Lee is another who should merit serious consideration. He doesn’t offer much around the park, but he is a significantly better scrummager than every other tight-head in the squad.
The Ospreys’ Tom Botha, who now qualifies on residency, is another who would improve Wales’ set piece.
Pivac is right to demand his props contribute around the park and he would argue there are more rucks than scrums in a game these days.
While this is undoubtedly true, it is very difficult to win Test matches without a functioning scrum as was evident during Wales’ valiant loss to South Africa.
But as forwards coach, Humphreys needs to find answers to these dilemmas because if he doesn’t Wales are kidding themselves about making serious progress.
If you sit down and analyse both Ireland and France’s victories against the All Blacks, the one thing which stands out is how physical, they were.
New Zealand got brutalised at the contact area in each game with the French and Irish totally dominant physically and at the set-pieces, while they have an abundance of ball-carriers throughout their pack.
Just to the sound of the Welsh fans
— Amazon Prime Video Sport (@primevideosport) November 22, 2021
This is something which Wales lack and Pivac will struggle to find answers to these issues with a dearth of physical carrying second rows in Welsh rugby presently.
Centre is another problem area for Wales with a lack of penetration in midfield costing them dearly.
Nick Tompkins enjoyed a fine game against the Wallabies, while Willis Halaholo had his moments, but the balance is all wrong in midfield.
Stephen Jones’ attacking gameplan isn’t functioning very well and it is difficult to see what they are trying to achieve.
This is partly down to the lack of carries to get them over the gain line in the centre of the park. A fully fit George North will improve this aspect, but they need a lot more.
Wales’ back three were excellent during the autumn series but the 10-12-13 axis lacks the right mixture of creativity, guile, and physicality to make the most of their threats out wide.
While on form, Wales should finish no higher than fourth in the Six Nations, what will encourage Pivac is the way his side have historically raised their game during European rugby’s showpiece event.
While most people will expect one of France, Ireland, or England to be crowned champions, form typically goes out of the window when it comes to the Six Nations.
The French were lightning quick to start against the All Blacks ⚡️⚡️⚡️
— Amazon Prime Video Sport (@primevideosport) November 21, 2021
Nobody gave Wales a chance of being successful last season after a diabolical autumn campaign, but they ended up being crowned champions, while back in 2019 Ireland entered the championship as overwhelming favourites, having just beaten the All Blacks.
But they ended up getting stuffed by both England and Wales.
Pivac should also be boosted by the return of some key personnel including North, Justin Tipuric, and Taulupe Faletau, among others.
But he can’t allow the win over Australia to paper over the cracks.
If he doesn’t fix the fundamental weaknesses in Wales’ game, mainly the contact area and the set-piece, it could be a long winter of discontent.