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Wales left to pick up pieces after shambolic autumn

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: December 04, 2012

GUTTED: The autumn has not been a good period for Wales.

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IF there are Welsh players who want to see the Sydney Opera House next summer more than the Imperial Palace East Gardens in Tokyo, then perhaps we should be told about it.

It is still early days, but over the past month all too few have made persuasive cases for touring Australia with the Lions.

To say it has been an autumn of woe for Warren Gatland and Robert Howley is like pointing out that one or two people at Twickenham were mildly pleased with the way events unfolded last Saturday.

Certainly, for many Welsh players who started November with serious designs on making Gatland's Test team Down Under, there is now as much chance that they will be paying a visit to Shane Williams in the Japanese capital in seven months' time.

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Of course, the Six Nations will offer the opportunity to make up lost ground.

But European rugby's annual joust will tell Gatland only so much.

It will inform him how capable players are of battling against others they are familiar with.

But it will not let him know whether they have the extra mental and physical gear to prosper against the men in gold who seem to have such a hex over Wales.

All bets are off. Sam Warburton for captain? Well, he has played Australia seven times in his career to date and lost on every occasion. He is a good player and a nice bloke who is modest and speaks well at press conferences.

But he has so far been unable to plot an on-pitch path to victory against the Wallabies and is now the most unsuccessful Wales captain of all-time against them — hardly the most convincing basis on which to pass him the armband.

Mike Phillips has lost all nine games he has played against Australia, Rhys Priestland is still waiting for his first win against the same opponents, after five defeats. Toby Faletau has four, Jon Davies six — Gethin Jenkins a gruesome 10. The list goes on.

Phillips has actually lost more games against Australia than Brynmor Williams, David Bishop, Ray Hopkins and Clive Shell played for Wales in total.

It's a confidence thing. Ben Youngs has won twice against the Wallabies and once against New Zealand in his short career.

Does that make him a better scrum-half than Phillips? Probably not. But he and other England players have made the mental breakthrough against the southern hemisphere in a way that their Welsh counterparts haven't.

Only some of which will bother the Welsh Rugby Union as they sift through the wreckage of the past three and a bit weeks.

But it is overdue for hard questions to be asked by the union's board.

Was it really wise to allow the head coach to effectively take nine months off to coach another team?

Why did Wales play a match they didn't need to play last weekend which resulted in them dropping out of the top eight in the IRB's global rankings and ending up in the third batch of seeds for the World Cup?

Is the price of playing an extra autumn international, in terms of tired players and the ruinous effects it has on the regions, worth the extra cash it brings in?

There are also issues for the Wales coaches, who have shown stubbornness in sticking with the same players even when the defeats have been stacking up.

Priestland played better last weekend, notwithstanding the wayward clearance that handed possession to Australia in the final minute, but it is hard to think of a fly-half in Welsh rugby history who has had more lives than the Scarlet.

This is No. 10, remember, supposedly the gold-standard position in Welsh rugby, where Phil Bennett once found himself relegated to third in the queue and Barry John had to bide his time behind David Watkins.

Imagine if James Hook or Dan Biggar had played as unevenly as Priestland performed throughout this series. They would have been sending back postcards from the wilderness for the rest of their careers.

Hook's treatment, in particular, has been deeply unimpressive.

Fifteen months ago, Wales were talking about him as their most talented player. But in the campaign just finished he found himself restricted to a bit-part role — 57 minutes as a replacement centre for the injured Jamie Roberts against Argentina, 12 minutes as a substitute fly-half against New Zealand.

Is he paying the price for being France-based? Or have the Wales management lost trust in him after the World Cup? We should be told.

Whatever, he has gifts that Wales should be utilising more fully.

It is up to Howley for the Six Nations. But if Hook continues to be marginalised, Wales will be adversely affected and Howley will not help his own chances of succeeding Gatland as head coach long term.

It is his call.

Justin Tipuric hasn't exactly been over-used, either, his one start coming against the head-hunters and bone-breakers of Samoa, against whom trying to jackal at a ruck can be as dangerous as taking a stroll across the M25. During rush hour.

Gethin Jenkins hasn't been at his best and the same applies to Toby Faletau, while Wales have missed too many tackles, messed up too many line-outs and scored all too few tries, notwithstanding most of their first-choice backline being available.

Liam Williams has been a welcome addition to the scene, and Leigh Halfpenny has been a beacon of courage at full-back.

But there hasn't been too much more to get excited about.

A whitewash tells a story and you would hope someone would stand back and ask why Wales have performed so poorly.

You would want action to be taken to get to the root of the problems and ensure they will not happen again.

But this is Wales.

Come the Six Nations, Adam Jones, Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones, Richard Hibbard and Ian Evans should be in contention again. A couple of wins and there will be a perception that everything is fine, that the woes of the autumn were fleeting.

Until next November and the annual reality check.

At the highest level, Welsh rugby isn't up to it. Until that fact hits home and the problems are seriously addressed, the national team will stay in their Boom and Bust Prison.

As JPR Williams said after the Australia game: "The legacy of this series is that we find ourselves in ninth place in the world rankings and facing a World Cup group of death. For a side that began the four-match series with grand designs on a place on the top four, it has been nothing short of catastrophic."

Catastrophic and shambolic.

Those running the show, take a bow.

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