Welsh rugby is in disarray. Embroiled in scandal and financial turmoil, things look particularly bleak across the River Severn. Wayne Pivac paid the price for a disappointing 2022, the loss at home to Georgia being the straw that broke the camel’s back. Wales have welcomed back their adopted son, Warren Gatland, a man associated with the good times. Gatland faces a mountainous task but will quietly relish Wales being written off. The underdog tag will suit him just fine.
The Welsh Rugby Union’s interim chief, Nigel Walker, yesterday admitted the WRU’s standing was at an “all-time low”. Walker takes the place of Steve Phillips, who rightly resigned in the wake of a BBC Wales Investigates programme which exposed allegations of misogyny, sexism, and racism. The investigation unveiled a toxic culture that needs to be completely torn apart and rebuilt. Proper scrutiny and strong action is required, a call echoed by the Welsh players. Regardless of what happens on the field, Welsh rugby needs a serious shake-up.Embed from Getty Images
What about their chances on the field? They will need a drastic improvement from their performances in the autumn if they are to avoid another fifth-placed finish. Gatland will likely bring greater clarity to their game, as Pivac’s search for expansion often left them going sideways. Gatland’s success was built around the key pillars of any good side; set piece, a strong defence, a good kicking game, and bucketloads of physicality. That is not a slight on Gatland, an excellent man-manager, adept at getting the best out of his players. Wales will also benefit greatly from the return of Dan Biggar, who missed the autumn through injury. Wales’s back play looked cluttered and confused in the autumn; Biggar’s experience should bring some much-needed direction.
The Welsh squad is packed with experience, with Ken Owens elected as captain. Owens had an excellent autumn series and is one of several senior players Gatland needs to deliver. Arguably, Wales haven’t been proactive enough in blooding younger players in the past few years, hence the slightly ageing squad. Admittedly, injuries haven’t helped, and they lack the depth of other nations. But in a World Cup year, age goes out the window. Progression can wait; Gatland needs to get his best side out on the field.Embed from Getty Images
The performance of the Welsh sides in the United Rugby Championship has been woeful. Still, Gatland will be heartened by the performance of the Ospreys in the Champions Cup, qualifying for the last sixteen with impressive away victories against Montpellier and Leicester. Justin Tipuric looked in excellent form, while Jac Morgan produced an outstanding performance at Welford Road and surely must start against Ireland. Cardiff’s Mason Grady is one of four uncapped players chosen in Gatland’s 37-man squad. Grady, similar in stature to George North, looks like the gain line buster Wales needs, with the midfield being an area where Wales chopped and changed regularly under Pivac. However, the exclusion of prop Nicky Smith is baffling, especially after showcasing his devastating scrummaging ability in the Champions Cup.
Wales’ first fixture is home to Ireland, who dispatched the Welsh comfortably in Dublin last year. Wales go into the game firmly as underdogs, a tag which suits the Welsh and, more often than not, brings out the best of them. They will quietly fancy causing an upset, but they won’t be able to simply outmuscle Ireland, and they will need greater fluidity in their back line to unlock the Irish defence. Things don’t get easier with a trip to Murrayfield in round two, although they boast an impressive record against the Scots. They host England in round three, a fixture where form goes out the window, and you can expect an electric atmosphere. The penultimate round sees a trip to Rome, a fixture they will be twitchy about after their shock loss last year. Their campaign finishes with a daunting trip to France, against whom they have lost their previous four encounters.
On paper, it looks like Wales are in for a tough campaign. Their barometer should be the games against England and Scotland; victory against one of the two would represent a good campaign. But we mustn’t write Wales off; there’s an abundance of experience in their side, with players Gatland knows inside out. Welsh fans will be hoping Gatland can replicate past glories, but this is a Wales without Shaun Edwards. The Welsh will be fired up, and Gatland will relish the opportunity to bring a much-needed feel-good factor to Welsh rugby. Who knows, if they sneak a victory against Ireland, they could end up in the mix.