On a general level I don’t tend to get overly optimistic about Wales’ chances before any international test match in the same way I do before Cardiff games. If the Blue and Blacks were playing the Springboks I’d probably fancy us to win if you asked me just before kick-off, with no actual logic behind that at all.
I don’t know if that’s linked to the national psyche of punching down on ourselves, or perhaps more to do with the fact I’ve never 100% bought in to being a Wales supporter with all the background WRU v Pro Clubs and club v country calendar arguments raging.
Nevertheless, I have a sneaky feeling Wales may well have a successful Six Nations over the next two months, mainly because Warren Gatland is back and what he does best is what has worked for us even while he has been away.
Firstly I’d say that a successful Six Nations for the men in red does not necessarily mean a Grand Slam or even a tournament win. To my eyes three or more wins over the next seven weeks would be a very good return in what is set to be a fiercely contested edition of the Championship.
Ireland are the best team in the world currently, France have been consistently good for three years, England are always strong and have a top coaching ticket in place now, while Scotland and Italy will also be involved…
Yet with Gatland back, and with his team selection for the round one clash against the Irish on Saturday in mind, it seems like it will be a return to ultimate pragmatism from a Welsh tactical point of view. The central tenets that underlined the New Zealander’s first spell in charge; a heavy focus on kicking, chasing hard, line speed in defence and a solid set piece, are going to be seen again in abundance.
I have no doubt that the players have spent the last two weeks in training camp being beasted to within an inch of their life to get their fitness levels up to a point they won’t have seen before, while simultaneously having the work-rate needed to make the tactics a success drilled into them by the senior leaders in the squad and the coaches.
It was this approach that led to some of the better results and performances during Wayne Pivac’s time as Head Coach even as he tried to evolve the game plan towards a more expansive style of attacking. The win over Australia in November 2021, pushing France all the way in last year’s Six Nations, and on the tour to South Africa last summer.
Gatland knows this worked well previously and is ideally suited to this Championship with it’s five games across 42 days with a minimum six day gap between matches and two fallow weeks. However, as Pivac rightly pointed out when he took over in 2019, that pragmatic style of play will not win a Rugby World Cup as rugby union becomes more and more physical.
A run to the RWC Final would see Wales playing seven games across 48 days, including three games in 14 days to get it underway and just one fallow week. It also comes on the back of two lengthy training camps and at least three warm-up games.
The Welsh players are not naturally physical enough to withstand that sort of punishment over such a long period of time, and the national pool is not deep enough to provide adequate cover, resulting in the injury crisis and general wearing out of the squad that we saw at the 2015 and 2019 tournaments.
There may well be a school of thought that says three wins in the Six Nations and a good go at the Rugby World Cup is an acceptable return anyway, but I’d certainly warn against getting too carried away if Wales do indeed go on to secure some strong results over the next few weeks, and warn against calls to keep Gatland on beyond the end of the year.
It’s a sticking plaster that is set up to get some success, but it is far from the long-term answer.