Gatland’s Great Six Nations Experiment

Posted by

It’s fair to say that my pre-Six Nations prediction that Wales would be sneakily quite competitive throughout this year’s Championship didn’t quite come to fruition.

Instead the men in red once again struggled through February and March, limping to another fifth place finish with just one win from the five games again, albeit this time the victory came over Italy out in Rome. It is the worst two-year spell we’ve suffered in the Six Nations since 2006-2007, which also led into a Rugby World Cup as a point of interest.

We all know how that one went!

In terms of the style of play it was pretty much what was expected from the return of Gatland. A kick-heavy, pragmatic tactical approach that attempted to keep the opposition as far from our own try line as possible and put pressure on in order to force a mistake.

Unfortunately that was blown apart in round one as a well-drilled and clinical Ireland arrived at the Principality Stadium and left with five points in the back pocket without ever getting into top gear. For Wales it underlined a painful truth; the old guard’s time had gone.

Gatland picked Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, Dan Biggar, George North and Liam Williams in the starting XV, while Scott Baldwin, Rhys Webb, Owen Williams and Alex Cuthbert were on the bench, all of whom were 30 or over on the day.

In fairness to the New Zealander that seemed to be recognised over the following two weeks as slowly but surely the squad began to evolve towards younger players.

The problem that’s faced is, due to Wayne Pivac’s refusal to undertake that squad evolution which should have begun post-2019 Rugby World Cup, there’s very few players in the national pool who are suitable for selection in the 24-29 year old age category. As a result the alternative to the old guard are the likes of Dafydd Jenkins, Christ Tshiunza, Joe Hawkins and Mason Grady, all of whom are 21 or younger.

Against Scotland in round two it was the pack that saw some of the new faces selected and they went well but the old guard still struggled in the backs, while against England it was the back line that was changed and had it’s moments but struggled behind the old guard returning to the pack.

That culminated in a largely young and fresh looking side going out to the Stadio Olimpico and putting in a very encouraging performance where the kick chase was at it’s best and the attack was varied and at it’s most creative so far. The defence was on the fragile side at times, but that is to be expected as players lacking in experience take the field and learn on the job.

It was at this point of the Six Nations that Gatland lost me in terms of his thinking around team selection and building towards the Rugby World Cup and beyond. Rather than developing the young players and allowing them to improve individually, as well as growing in their positional partnerships, they were cast aside again for members of the old guard to return for the trip to Paris.

Of course there’s an understanding that some of those players were bidding their Championship farewells, but the questions remain now around how the younger players who will be needed if Wales want to be competitive in September will fare without that big game experience you get from playing in the Stade de France.

The concern is that World Cup warm-up games don’t offer that same level of exposure no matter how major the opponents are, leaving Wales inexperienced and undercooked going into the tournament, which is then carried forward into the next RWC cycle that will see the next generation become key players.

In the end Gatland leaves himself banking heavily on the work that his coaches can do throughout the training camps over the summer to get the squad to a place where they can qualify for the quarter-finals, which would be generally accepted as a success given the circumstances of the national player pool and Welsh rugby as a whole at the moment.

Once again it seems short-termism wins in Welsh rugby.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s