Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Wales - great, or greatly deluded?

Wales coach Warren Gatland has never been shy of aiming his verbal hand grenades at teams in big-match build-ups.

The Kiwi's take on the game was echoed throughout the camp, players and coaches lining up to stress how close Wales are to greatness.

Ryan Jones claimed Les Bleus were "creaking" and "there for the taking", Shane Williams said France were "on the ropes" and Stephen Jones talked of Wales aiming to be "one of the best sides in the world".

It is a view that can easily seduce when one remembers the thrilling fight backs that have characterised the men in red's last three games, against France, Scotland and England.

But the idea can just as easily shatter when considering the lax and error-ridden early action that had left Wales so distant in those three Tests, and in November's hammering against Australia.

Former England coach Dick Best famously claimed that Wales' 2005 Grand Slam was built on foundations of sand, but that surely cannot be said of the present side.

The scrum shared the spoils with a formidable France eight and - although the line-out creaked once again - that seems to be a frustrating case of failures in accuracy and execution rather than personnel.

Key players like Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Alun Wyn Jones and Mike Phillips have been missing for extended periods, although strength in depth has been built in their absence.

Physicality at the breakdown is a concern, but Wales clearly have the fitness to live with the best and their attacking potential is beyond doubt.

The biggest deterioration since Gatland's inaugural, Grand Slam year of 2008 has undoubtedly been the defence.

Two years ago Wales conceded just two tries as they stormed to Six Nations glory. In three games in 2010 they have leaked seven.

Last week Gatland pointed to the continued absence of Gavin Henson as a key element in the defence's decline, but after the France game there was a more positive spin.

"We've picked an attack-loaded team and I was very proud of the defence," said defence coach Shaun Edwards.

"To keep France to no offensive tries was a great effort. But there is no doubt people are doing their homework and have seen they can get intercepts, because more than 30% of our tries conceded over the last 18 months have come from intercepts."

Whatever the problems in the Welsh side, it seems that self belief is not one of them.

This would seem a deliberate ploy from Gatland who has identified Welsh pessimism as a weakness and has been keen to build confidence in victory ahead of major Tests.

It is the sort of thinking that saw him question Mathieu Bastareaud's fitness before the France match, to ask whether New Zealand had lost their aura before the All Blacks game and to stress his players' dislike of Ireland before last year's Six Nations decider.

A trip to face the Championship holders in Croke Park on 13 March is next up for Wales.

"If we can be on a level playing field going into second half against Ireland... we feel we can beat anybody," flanker Jonathan Thomas has already declared.

Gatland said: "We're critical of ourselves and hard on ourselves and hopefully that will make us a better side moving forward.

Wales V Italy Hospitality

France V Italy Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

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