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NO POSITIVES IN another loss

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: December 03, 2012

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AS the old line goes, Wales have blown more leads than a rubbish electrician.

They are the masters at turning the lights out on themselves.

They did it in Wellington against South Africa at the World Cup, followed by similar drills in Melbourne and Sydney against Australia in the summer and in Cardiff against Samoa a fortnight last Friday.

So no-one should have been surprised at the way their latest meeting with the Wallabies finished.

Lying around somewhere, there is probably a Welsh manual, to be followed to the letter in tight games, which condemns sides with three feathers on their shirts to force their way in front, lose composure, hand over possession and then watch as victory is snatched from their grasp in agonising circumstances.

No doubt there are then instructions for all concerned to insist that the narrow defeat is somehow the harbinger of more prosperous times.

All this duly unfolded at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.

Truly, if there were a world championship for taking the positives, Wales would be guaranteed to lift the trophy every year. There would be no-one to pip them in the final minute, no chance of anyone coming up with a more dazzling set of silver linings.

The script was adhered to faithfully by most in the post-match press conference and interviews.

It was the Monty Python approach to life — always look on the bright side.

But all the talk in the world about better days to come will not mask the reality that professional rugby is a results business and Wales have played four games this autumn and lost the lot.

Two of those defeats came against sides below them in the IRB's global rankings at the time the matches were played, and the setback against Australia has turfed Warren Gatland's side out of the top eight and into the third batch of seeds for the next World Cup, putting them on course for a tough draw in England in 2015.

No-one disputes that young players will benefit from exposure at this level.

But Test rugby is about the here and now rather than two or three years down the road. It is an environment where judgements are made on current events, not on scenarios that may or may not come to pass at some point in the future.

The Welsh Rugby Union ought to start the inquest by looking at themselves after their decision to release Gatland to the Lions for the first half of the autumn campaign and also for the Six Nations.

As former union chief executive David Moffett argued eight days ago: "You can't do both jobs. That is pathetic. It's a kick in the face to the Welsh nation. Would you get away with that in New Zealand. No, you would not.

"Gatland should only be involved in Welsh rugby. If you want to work full time for the Lions, then go. Your head in that event is not with Wales. You can't have someone doing a part-time job for Wales.

"The country is too important for the good of world rugby. It's essential for the game at large that we have a strong Wales."

But we haven't seen that over the past month, with Wales completing yet another journey from boom to bust, with seven international defeats in a row since the Grand Slam in March.

It is the worst run ever for a country who have just completed a European clean sweep. Scotland lost six in a row in 1984, but the Welsh implosion of 2012 has relieved Jim Aitken's team of their unwanted record.

What is particularly concerning is that the same mistakes that were made in the summer have continued to be made in this series, not least over how to close out a game.

Rewind to the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne in the summer, when Wales were ahead with the game heading towards the final whistle when Rhys Priestland kicked possession to Australia, who promptly worked their way upfield to score via a winning penalty.

Leading 12-9 on Saturday, with 71 seconds left on the clock, Priestland again took possession of the ball and again failed to make the situation safe, lumping it upfield for the Wallabies to launch their winning counter-attack.

It wasn't just his fault. At the ruck that followed Wales had six players bunched within metres of the ball, meaning they were short of cover on the other flank. Australia transferred possession quickly and a lightning raid ended with Kurtley Beale crossing in the corner.

Wales shouldn't be giving their errors encores.

The players are to blame, for sure, but such events do not exactly do much for the coaches' reputations, either.

Change sports for a minute and remember how Brendan Rodgers reacted to Swansea City losing a 2-0 lead with six minutes to go at Wolves last season. They had panicked and stopped playing their way out from the back, instead just booting it anywhere.

Rodgers told his players they needed to learn the six-minute game, and the following week they worked on managing pressure by keeping possession.

Next time out, Swansea went 2-0 up against Bolton, only to be pegged back to 2-1 amid deepening crowd anxiety. Bolton then didn't get a kick for ten minutes, the Welsh club eventually taking the game 3-1.

That is top, top coaching. A serious problem was identified, worked on and sorted.

Did Wales have a strategy in place for seeing out last Saturday's game in the not unlikely event that they would only be a single score in front in the final seconds? Would it have been that difficult for skilled international players to have retained possession for barely a minute? How difficult would it have been for Priestland to manufacture a kick that bounced into touch?

He actually had his best game of the series aside from that wayward clearance, playing with variety and keeping the visitors guessing. But it wasn't to be his day, or Wales's.

Their star, not for the first time this series, was Leigh Halfpenny.

He may have been the smallest player in Gatland's team but his bravery in the final minutes was astonishing. Not once but twice did he throw himself directly in the way of charging Wallaby players — stopping Berrick Barnes first, then the 6ft 4in, 17st 11lb Dave Dennis.

On the front of the matchday programme was a picture of Halfpenny in front of the horse he had raced to promote the autumn series.

Had it been the nag running down Halfpenny's channel on Saturday afternoon, you know Wales's full-back would have had a go at tackling him.

Happily, he suffered no serious injury when attempting the Dennis tackle, notwithstanding a visit to hospital.

Wales were hurt at the breakdown in the opening half, while they lost six out of their 23 line-outs overall, an abysmal effort even given that they were operating with their fifth and sixth-choice locks in the second half.

The Welsh backs had their moments, Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert making clean breaks, but they lacked poise at key moments and the case for accommodating James Hook is becoming irresistible.

Later, there was some talk about the Six Nations.

And, indeed, with injured players returning to fitness, there is a fair chance Rob Howley's side will prove hard to beat in that.

But the true yardstick is the southern hemisphere, and over the past month Wales have been found wanting.

There are only so many positives that can be found in a bucket of whitewash.

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