Nobody said it would be easy. Even so, prior to Wales’ tour of Australia, there was a quiet optimism buzzing around Britain and Ireland. With exactly a year to go until the Lions headed out to the Antipodes, Sam Warburton and his band of Grand Slammers had a golden opportunity to bloody the Wallabies’ nose. In theory, they would build upon an unblemished Six Nations and strike fear into Robbie Deans’ heart.
Mike Phillips was going to bully Will Genia, Sam Warburton had the beating of David Pocock and the hosts’ scrum would surely buckle. After all, it always does – Dan Cole ate it up at Sydney in 2010. It all sounded great in theory, boding very well for the Lions’ aspirations of halting a cycle of series losses that now stretches awkwardly back to 1997. No such luck.
After losses for the visitors at Brisbane and Melbourne, the contest is over at the earliest possibility. The Aussies, shorn of their best players, have repelled Rob Howley’s siege. In truth, after an abject start at Suncorp Stadium, Wales are yet to get going – they have lived off scraps before sinking to grim, inevitable defeat. A flurry of panicky Rhys Priestland punts on Saturday confirmed that their mental block remains. Unfortunately, winning the dead rubber this weekend won’t redeem that.
Sources of solace are few and far between. The performances of Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert and Bradley Davies have impressed, but collective disappointment far outweighs individual progress. It is tempting to look ahead to next summer. There is still twelve months’ worth of water to pass under the British and Irish Lions bridge, but some things are crystal clear. Welsh woes must translate into firm lessons for Warren Gatland in his next guise as Lions guru. Here are five such points to start with.
1. Think twice about making Sam Warburton captain
Since last October, Warburton has been the subject of unbridled, unapologetic adulation throughout The Valleys and beyond. No complaints – the awesome openside has deserved every bit of praise that has come his way and, barring injury, his name will be among the 15 to face the Wallabies in the first Test.
However, he has not been himself recently. Probably unfit, Warburton has definitely been second best to David Pocock. A breakdown battle with the Aussie talisman requires every ounce of concentration and application and the Cardiff Blue has been found wanting.
As tempting as it may be for Gatland to stay loyal to his trusty right-hand man, the official title, in my opinion, needs to go to someone older than 24 and much uglier. There won’t be room in Warburton’s brain to deal with the pivotal calls of a tight series while bursting every sinew to terrorise the Wallabies’ continuity at ruck-time. Clear his head, wind him up and watch him go without the weight of the world on his shoulders.
2. Stop Will Genia
The diminutive Queenslander has been nothing short of sensational so far, playing matador to Phillips’ hapless bullishness. Ominously reminiscent of the Lion-taming George Gregan in the manner he fizzes around the fringes, he is much more of a running threat as his brilliant home ground try showed. Close to perfect in Brisbane, Genia also tormented Wales at the Etihad and will be even more dangerous when Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale shimmy back into the international spotlight to preoccupy more defenders. The best scrum half in the world, he also has a happy habit of turning average forward packs into a set of supermen.
3. Research southern hemisphere officials meticulously
Quite simply, Craig Joubert spent the entirety of the series opener in Pocock’s pocket. Green and gold lay all over would-be quick ball and stifled a Welsh attack that thrives on go-forward. Close calls never seemed to come good for the away side, who were left gobsmacked at some of the South African’s interpretations of the laws at ruck-time. Having met him throughout the Super 15 campaign, Pocock could chat and charm Joubert to his heart’s content – an underrated skill in the modern game.
That trend continued into the second instalment at the weekend, with Chris Pollock of New Zealand making the staggering decision to penalise a dominant Welsh scrum in the final throws, offering Berrick Barnes a chance to win the game. It didn’t matter that the kick was missed – Wales had lost faith in the official and a handle on their emotions. It was no surprise that Mike Harris got another go.
4. Instil composure
At first glance, Wales’ lineout statistics on their own throw during the second Test – 10 won, four lost – do not look disastrous. They were. Matthew Rees missed his men at crucial moments when consolidation of possession was key. A capricious irony of the clash was that Australia’s game-breaking score just before the break came after a beautifully orchestrated lineout (following an overcooked Phillips box-kick), sent Rob Horne scything over the whitewash.
The final moments in Melbourne were a microcosm of the series. Richard Hibbard’s innocuous offence was a shotgun to his side’s toes and proved, yet again, that the southern hemisphere sides only need a sniff. At least with opponents so intent of self-destruction, they do.
5. Respect the schedule
If Howley had employed the same ‘jetlag protocol’ as England did with James Haskell, only one of his replacements would have been able to take the field at Brisbane. After a slumbering beginning, that seemed very silly. Surely selection for the Barbarians match would have been manipulated to ensure more men were fresh and primed for the Test arena.
If this month has highlighted anything across the board, it is that back-to-back Tests are tough. So tough that any cracks in preparation can quickly turn to cavernous, crippling holes. Wales pride themselves on their fitness but just couldn’t cope with the relentless pace that the Australians set at Suncorp. No stone can be left unturned in terms of conditioning, both mentally and physically.
Of course, Gatland has three more nations at his disposal and some stellar personnel with which to combat these nagging doubts. We should feel very hopeful of his ability to manufacture an elusive series victory. On the evidence of the last fortnight, we should also feel certain that the Lions’ clash with Australia will be utterly compelling.