Three games into the Six Nations and three defeats for Warren Gatland in his second spell as Wales coach. Is this really the same man who left on such a high and with such credit in the bank three years ago? Daniel Parker says the figure in the big grey WRU coat looks strangely unfamiliar.
How do Wales fans begin to process that absolutely dismal defeat to the Old Enemy?
While there have been more depressing final scores in the history of the fixture – those of us old enough to remember the dark days of the 1990s and early 2000s can unhappily attest to that – there can hardly have been a more abject performance from the men in red.
With the exception of Louis Rees-Zammit’s interception try, the home side never looked like scoring, despite enjoying a decent helping of possession.
There was no shortage of effort from Wales, but the dearth of ambition or any sense of strategy was infuriating from Mathieu Raynal’s first whistle right through to the game’s underwhelming conclusion.
It was one of the worst games the Championship has produced in years: the pulse-raising thriller some had predicted totally failed to materialise, and in its place we got a low-quality basement battle between two poor teams, with the less bad one emerging victorious.
Steve Borthwick’s men deserved their 20-10 win, but showed their own limitations in failing to make hay from their dominance at the breakdown.
Wales will know that the same standard of performance against better opposition would have produced a decidedly more ugly outcome.
The Troubling State of Welsh Rugby’s Coaching and Performance in the Six Nations
The pottage of pandemonium surrounding the financial and governance structures of Welsh rugby has undoubtedly contributed to the national side’s malaise over the last year, and the spectre of external chaos has haunted this Six Nations campaign.
Without seeking to diminish that bleak backdrop – and its obvious impact on the financial and emotional well-being of players – there are serious questions to ask of Warren Gatland and his coaching team, too. Against England, Wales didn’t just look like a distracted team, but an uncoached one.
With the possible exception of one visible set play – the repeated and wholly fruitless sequence of box- kicks to Freddie Steward – Gatland’s team looked bereft of instruction or purpose.
In attack in particular, Wales were toothless. A rigid back line failed to make any meaningful dents in the English defence, with the vaunted green centre pairing of Mason Grady and Joe Hawkins failing to impose themselves in the physical tussle, and an out-of-sorts Owen Williams unable to spark life into the midfield.
Wales’ carrying game was an even more frustrating spectacle. The increasingly penalty-prone Taulupe Faletau and Adam Beard veered off on solo missions into isolated dead ends; veteran Alun Wyn Jones was repeatedly expected to make yardage from slow ball in static positions; and front-rowers were leftstranded in unhelpful wide positions in open play.
To compound it all, the differential between Welsh and English entry speed into the ruck was painful.
There was a visible air of desperation in the Welsh performances against Scotland and England.
That’s not a quality that’s ever been associated with Gatland or the squads he has coached over the years; teams which have been moulded on structure and discipline, often at the expense of adventure.
Some have openly questioned whether the Gatland of 2023 is the same rugged operator the Welsh public came to quietly cherish over his first, trophy-laden tenure in the hotseat.
Former players like Mike Phillips have suggested that he has ‘lost his bark’.
Warren Gatland must really push the youth revolution to rescue the game here https://t.co/nzW1h7wIQ2
— WalesOnline Rugby (@WalesRugby) February 26, 2023
Whether that is true or not, the evidence of the last three games (and indeed, his last three years of work with the Lions and the Chiefs) suggests that the aura which once surrounded the man and his teams has gone.
It now feels like a well-trodden cliché to point to Shaun Edwards as the missing magic ingredient in Gatland’s winning recipe, but it is patently obvious things haven’t gelled yet with the new coaching set-up.
Attack coach Alex King – who Gatland rather awkwardly admitted was not his first choice for the role – has yet to make any discernible imprint; while assistant coach Jonathan Humphreys, something of a surprise survivor from the Wayne Pivac era, will be feeling some heat over an unpredictable set-piece and underwhelming performances from the Welsh pack.
Lancastrian defence coach Mike Forshaw will also be disappointed with Wales having shipped 12 tries over their first three Six Nations games.
The body language of the coaching faculty doesn’t inspire confidence, either.
At half -time last weekend, TV viewers were given a fascinating glimpse of an attentive English squad huddled around a gesticulating Steve Borthwick.
In contrast, the Welsh dressing room was a chaotic mishmash of players milling around with ants in their pants; a clutch of lost-looking backroom staff staring into the distance; and somewhere amongst it all, the diminutive figure of Gatland, trudging around the room like a rail signaller killing time between lengthy delays on the line.
This was just a brief snapshot, of course. But if you were the coach of a disoriented-looking losing side playing as badly Wales were, surely you’d want to use every second of the 15-minute window afforded to you to put a proverbial rocket up the backside of your charges?
Selections and substitutes have been erratic too. The ‘shepherd’s hook’ given to Christ Tshiunza and Josh Adams during the England game seemed to come out of nowhere, and the decision to drop Jac Morgan from the matchday 22 for the England game – after playing the Osprey out of position against Scotland – was a curious one, especially after the Brynamman product won more turnovers than any other Welsh player in the first two fixtures.
Today's rugby news as Gatland's former players question tactics and identity https://t.co/jSzCGWIjta
— WalesOnline Rugby (@WalesRugby) February 27, 2023
Short-sighted Selection and Unease in the Camp: Gatland’s Challenge in Maintaining Player Confidence Ahead of World Cup
Moreover, the token squad place given to Cardiff lock Teddy Williams (who is unlikely to get any game time in the campaign) at the expense of a back-row berth for either Taine Basham or Ross Moriarty now seems particularly short-sighted in light of Wales’ notable lack of back-row ballast.
Even during the halcyon days of the first Gatland era, the Kiwi was not immune to criticism of his handling of players: from the abrupt excommunication of Alix Popham in 2008, to the public scapegoating of Ryan Jones and the mismanagement of young talents like Tom Prydie.
These things can be forgiven when things are going well, but can foment unease in the camp in less successful times.
Even after three games, there are a handful of players who can justifiably feel confused around selection policies: Morgan, Rhys Patchell, Wyn Jones, Rio Dyer, Scott Baldwin, Rhys Webb, Alex Cuthbert, and the as-yet unused pair of Keiran Williams and Aaron Wainwright.
Now, more than ever, Gatland must tread carefully if he is to maintain the confidence of the playing group in a World Cup year.
The evidence of recent weeks – from Dan Biggar’s vocal frustrations in the build-up to the Scotland game and his short fuse during that fixture, to Ken Owens’ dejected post-match interview last weekend – suggests that Gatland has been powerless to shield his players from the tidal wave of exasperation engulfing the Welsh game.
More worryingly, after each of the three dismal defeats this campaign, the New Zealander’s post-match comments have not painted a picture of a head coach in control of the situation or able to stop the on- field rot.
In distinctly un-Gatland-like fashion, he talked about ‘not being that disappointed’ after the Ireland game, and was positive in flagging up opportunities for improvement.
A week later, the on-field performance against Scotland showed worrying signs of regression – particularly in attack.
After the Murrayfield mauling, the coach hinted that he was regretting returning to the role – saying that Wales were “in a hole” and that, bizarrely, that he “wished he would have known” about the issues afflicting Wales before signing on the dotted line.
What will the Ireland team to face Scotland look like after Saturday's win over Italy? @StephenFerris6 assesses the options after the latest Six Nations victory on @GameOn2FM pic.twitter.com/X3rxGJxlNN
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) February 27, 2023
The Pressure Mounts for Gatland as Wales Prepare for Make-or-Break Match Against Italy
It goes without saying that the situation at the WRU is beyond Gatland’s control. But to feign ignorance of what he was getting into – while acknowledging that his previous successes had papered over the cracks of issues he claimed not to know about – just doesn’t cut the mustard.
Gatland took the gig with open arms and a hefty pay-cheque to boot. The buck for on-field performances stops with him.
In Pivac’s final Six Nations in 2022, Wales were only definitively second-best in one game – the gruelling opener against Ireland in Dublin.
They beat Scotland. They would have won at Twickenham notwithstanding a suspect English try which should have been chalked off; France’s Grand Slam hopes would have died in Cardiff if Jonathan Davies had collected one key pass; and a touch-and-go TMO decision against Wyn Jones contributed to a humiliating home defeat to Italy.
If that’s an optimistic view, there’s no room for a similar take for 2023 thus far: Wales have been comprehensively second-best in all three games this term.
And in the Scotland and England games in particular, we’ve seen no evidence of the coaching staff being able to effectively intervene or shift the mode of play when things are clearly going wrong.
Even if we’re not quite in 2007 Gareth Jenkins “judge me on the World Cup” territory, the upcoming Italy game is now a huge test for Gatland – and potentially a defining moment in establishing whether his second tenure will extend beyond this autumn’s tournament in France.
Losing to Italy kickstarted a death spiral for the Steve Hansen, Gareth Jenkins and Wayne Pivac regimes.
This is a much stronger Italy outfit than any of those coaches faced, but a loss in Rome would still represent a painful first for Gatland – and would chip away at any post-World Cup credit in the bank he may be holding on to.
The pressure is on, and the Welsh public will expect a win and tangible signs of improvement.