In the first of a series of articles reviewing 2013, we look back at some of the highs and lows for Wales this year.
Wales may be facing a potentially difficult and divisive 2014 domestically, but internationally the outlook is on the whole a positive one after a mixed 2013. Despite the continued loss of players from the regions, Wales will still be regarded as favourites for the Six Nations next year.
With so many top players leaving, the regions have had to blood youngsters and given the recent success of the Wales U20s, this is no bad thing. The retention of the Six Nations was the highlight of 2013, with the Championship culminating in the conclusive victory over England at a delirious Millennium Stadium. Then there was the huge Welsh contribution to the Lions in Australia, which should have set Wales up for a successful autumn series – sadly, for various reasons, it was not to be.
When South Africa swept up the field to score their superb opening try they left the field littered with wounded and deflated Welsh players dealing them a blow they never recovered from. The severe injury to the glittering Jonathan Davies gave the ‘Boks an opening they exploited brutally, taking full advantage of a stunned and disorientated Welsh side.
As the series of matches rumbled on, Welsh centres in particular became an endangered species and when the Wallabies came to town they ruthlessly targeted the callow Welsh midfield. Wales tried hard to spin positives out of yet another defeat to Australia, but the unpalatable truth was that they were outplayed for large periods of the match. They might have learnt a great deal, but untried youngsters simply could not make up the gulf necessary in terms of experience and intensity for these test matches. The lack of an “A” team looks more and more like a poor long term decision, with Gatland all too often being forced to throw untried players into the crucible of the international arena before they are ready.
Not a difficult one this: the winning of the Six Nations takes it hands down. After three consecutive away victories, the campaign culminated in that momentous occasion at the Millennium Stadium, with England being humbled by a rampant Welsh team. The fantastic efforts of the Welsh players and coaches for the Lions of 2013 also deserve a mention here.
Sadly, there are several contenders; the continued underperformance of the Welsh line-out, the apparent lack of variety in attack – ‘Warrenball’ simply cannot defeat the better sides on its own, losing to Ireland first up in the Six Nations 2013. But probably the most disappointing aspect of 2013 for Wales would be their continued inability to beat one of the top SH sides – in particular the Wallabies. Worryingly, it is not about skill sets, size, fitness or technique, it is the lack of mental strength, belief and ability to make the correct decision under pressure that is crippling Wales.
Player of the year
There are several players in the mix for this one; AWJ, Sam Warburton, Dan Biggar, George North, Halfpenny, Richard Hibbard, and Justin Tirpuric are all worthy of consideration. But two others stand out; Toby Faletau and Jonathan Davies both have been outstanding for Wales and the Lions. Jonathan Davies deserves this accolade by the smallest of margins, for after his dismal performance against the Irish he went on to make himself a match winner for Wales, and then go on to be the outstanding centre on the Lions tour. By its conclusion he was universally regarded both as a world class player and dignified model professional.
Emerging player of the year
Once again there are several contenders worthy of mention; Scott Williams, Rhodri Jones and Ken Owens to name but a few. Liam Williams, however, has come on leaps and bounds this season. Taking his chance after injuries to Alex Cuthbert and Eli Walker, he has looked comfortable on the wing despite having more experience at fullback. Having been around the set-up for a while now, and still only 22 years old, he could well have a bright future in a Welsh jersey.
What to expect in 2014
Wales and Gatland will need to focus on what they can control and leave the domestic fracas to sort itself out and aim to fulfil this group’s stated target of winning the Six Nations for the third time consecutively. He will need a fully fit squad. If Wales are able to play their first choice 23 then they are a match for any side in the Northern Hemisphere, home or away. With three games at home, the matches at Twickenham and Dublin could well decide the fate of the trophy. You can bet that certain Irish players will be anticipating with relish their game with the Welsh on Saturday 8th February. The tour to South Africa and the recently published Autumn Internationals mean that Wales are playing the top three countries in 2014 – they must win at least two of these games to be considered as contenders for the RWC 2015. At the moment that feels like a tall order, unless Gatland can keep everyone healthy and look to introduce some flexibility into the Welsh game plan.
By Gareth Hughes (@rugbyghughes57)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images