It can feel at times as if there’s something in the psyche of Wales as a country, and us as Welsh people, that because we’re relatively small in land mass and population size, that we perform much better when our backs are against the wall.
Without getting too deep into the socio-economic tendencies of our country, I would say it’s a relatively true statement across our politics, our culture, and particularly our sport. It’s a plucky underdog mentality that can lead to great success, just ask the Wales football team in 2016. However, when that tag is lost it can often lead to chastening defeat, just ask the Wales football team in 2022.
Welsh rugby doesn’t escape this trend either. Let’s take the national team’s fortunes over the last few years for example. Rewind to 2017 and the Wales side was in a tough spot; without Warren Gatland as he masterminded a Lions draw in New Zealand, feeling the physical effects of that packed calendar, and losing seven of 14 games from the start of the year through to the mid-point of the 2018 Six Nations.
With expectations low and the players and coaches under-fire there was suddenly a switch flicked, and from that point on Wales wouldn’t lose a game, bar Rugby World Cup warm-up matches, until the semi-final loss against South Africa in Yokohama. 19 wins on the bounce, a stunning run, until it all came crashing down as seven of the next nine games were lost under Wayne Pivac.
That discomfort with being anything other than the underdogs is what ultimately leads us back to the point where we have to carry that mantle again, rather than being able to capitalise on any success and building on it for the benefit of rugby in Wales.
Twice now in the last decade we have followed up periods of hugely profitable periods of national team success, 2012/13 and 2018/19, with frankly ludicrous investment decisions that don’t benefit either the coffers of the Welsh Rugby Union, nor do they strengthen the cash cow that is Wales’ men’s side. They are decisions made by an executive and board stacked with amateur committee men who are overly cautious.
Where are the community facilities for local teams and the development pathway? Where is the full-time coaching infrastructure for the development pathway? Where are the payments that will ensure the professional clubs are re-compensated for player development and release, and can be competitive at the highest level? All of these things feed into a successful national team.
What we are left with is yet another crisis for the professional club game as budgets are unknown beyond the end of this season and some are struggling to even be in existence for June, a development pathway that functions purely due to the incredible work of a small but talented number of individuals, and a community game that is on it’s knees with a lack of suitable facilities and players.
Yet with that comes the underdog tag again, with Welsh sides in European competition showing what they are capable of over the last two weeks. Cardiff and Scarlets both sit top of their respective pools with maximum points in the Challenge Cup, a noticeably improving Dragons are right in the hunt for a rounf of 16 spot, and the Ospreys secured one of the great Welsh Heineken Cup wins away at Top14 leaders Montpellier.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Wales go on and have a somewhat successful Six Nations campaign either, with Warren Gatland back and moulding what is still a very good group of players into an effective team once again.
Long-term though something has to change, and it will take a huge mindset shift from the blazers at the top of the WRU to see beyond the end of their noses and start to build something that this country can be proud of. A rugby landscape that serves communities to the best of it’s ability and produces professional clubs and a national team that can represent us with honour on the biggest stages.
It’s not quite speculating to accumulate, it’s carrying out the Union’s duty to lead the game in Wales. Society is changing at a rapid pace and the 1970s have been left behind. It’s time to embrace the 21st century, and doing so is not about building hotels and brewing beer, it’s building artificial pitches, getting kids playing rugby and developing international quality rugby players.
We don’t have time to wait for the next round of success born from a backs-to-the-wall mentality. Let’s get ahead of the curve and build something for Wales.