Well, in many respects, Wales’ defeat to Australia in the third place play off of the 2011 rugby world cup smacked of a game too far. The legs were not pumping as hard as they had been, the gain line breaks failed to travel as far as they could a couple of weeks ago, and all the time everyone in red pondered the absence of Priestland, Jones (Adam) and Warburton and what could have been with them on the field. The strength in depth to cover such absences is developing, but it is clearly not there yet. So fourth for Wales in the world cup (and a much lower world ranking to boot) and a sense of disappointment from a tournament which in the warm up period offered so little, yet grew to offer so much. The defeat to France and the infamous red card will be one to stand the test of time in Welsh irritations, probably outstripping the Andy Haden lineout dive in 1978 as the most controversial and bitter of reasons for defeat (though I wager Haden’s dive will ultimately hold more sway over Welsh rugby’s bitter taste buds). But despite consecutive defeats at the end of the tournament, and a string of sore bones and bruises (most of which will be focused on George North’s head), there is much cause for optimism as this squad moves forward, as will be considered below.
Welsh Player of the Tournament: There are so many players in the Welsh squad who could raise their hands for this accolade, Warburton, North, Priestland, Lydiate, Adam Jones could all make their case, but Toby Faletau for me has led the way, and should do so for a long time in a Welsh jersey. The man has been a monster in defence, hammering every single person down who was foolhardy enough to get within his grasp. In attack he proved a nuisance, crashing forward and making waves of space for those around him. At the end of the tournament he was asked to move out of position, and still proved his worth: he certainly won’t force Warburton out of his No7 jersey, but he proved his versatility in covering for the captain. Not since Scott Quinnell have Wales had such a presence from No8, and Faletau is already looking better than Quinnell did in his prime.
Star Find: Again, plenty to choose from, but Priestland probably stands out, more so by his absence than his presence on the field. All of the talk in the tournament focused on the Welsh backs, Roberts in particular, but so much of what went right for Wales in attack came from the mind of Priestland. He offered a sense of vision that has long been lacking in the No10 jersey for Wales, and both Hook and Stephen Jones’ efforts in the role highlighted just how important Priestland had been. Another one who will have hopefully a couple of World Cups in his future, Priestland has inherited the outside half crown and made it his own.
Wales LVP: Possibly a harsh branding, and a harsh recipient, but James Hook has gone from being the pundits first choice 10 for Wales, to the nations pariah…his journey to France could perhaps not be more timely. What happened to Hook one wonders? Once so calm with his kicks, once so dangerous running forward, he now looks a shadow, a wraith like presence scaring the Welsh attack into ignominy with his mere presence. As others have pointed out, Wales lost three games by a collective margin of 5 points – looking back over Hook’s missed efforts how can fans help but point a finger of judgement in his direction. Probably most telling of Hook’s contributions was against Australia in the build up to Shane Williams’ try. Hook broke, panicked, and flung a ball at Shane’s feet – chance then created the try, not Hook. A startled man, a broken man, perhaps a sabbatical in France is just what he needs, because far from being a grand slam hero, Hook is now damaged goods, and we must hope that this incredibly talented man can find a path to rugby redemption – he certainly needs it.
The Good: When Welsh attack sparked it was the best in the tournament. From 1-15 there were occasions when Wales played something approaching rugby perfection. With one or two key personal lost, it could not be sustained, but when the Welsh first choice 15 took the field – what a joy it was to see them play. The Irish game will stand the test of time as an example of how rugby should be played – and boy did Wales play that day.
The Bad: The strength in depth is coming, but it’s not here yet. Hook for Priestland, Paul James for Adam Jones, no more openside flankers when Sam’s not around…it’s only one or two players but when they are not available to Wales we looked like the team that was caught in the Six Nations headlamps not so many months ago. The Welsh coaches need to grab a shovel and start digging to find the next tighthead prop and openside flanker and fast. Without support in those areas Wales go from being great and average – and it happens with alarming ease
The Ugly: Warburton, poor Sam Warburton. The debates are still raging as to whether it should have been a red card or not, yet even those who conclude it should have been, still pity the man for his punishment. Warburton stood as the leader, the man who would carry Wales to the world cup final. It did not happen. A referee made a decision and took it all away from him. Put aside the debate, if the card was right or wrong, his loss from the tournament was an ugly underserved moment.
Finally, The Future: Wales must not get too excited too soon. They leave this tournament having played the best rugby, and at times, having looked like the best team, but not always. A Six Nations is coming, and Wales can win it. With the first XV available this Wales squad could take any nation, but we must find backups to the starting line up who are up to the task. 10, 7, and 3, positions on the field that are essential. Wales have three excellent players to start in those berths, but currently have no stars to step up. Without support in those positions, any ambitions of Grand Slam success will remains as ambitions alone. We have shown how average we are without stars in those positions, and the future of Welsh rugby will stand and fall not on the ability of Priestland, Warburton and Adam Jones, but on those who replace them when the need arises. Keep searching Wales, we have the power, now we need to back it up from the bench.