Sir Clive Woodward, who was always pretty precise with a catchphrase, used to refer to them as ‘The Bad Guys’. As his England side were striving to shed the shackles of mediocrity and evolve into world-beaters, three very uncompromising obstacles kept presenting themselves. Over the first two and a half years of Woodward’s rein, the red rose faced Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in 13 Tests. A solitary win, over the Springboks at Twickenham in 1998, was engineered.
Only at the turn of the millennium did England arrest such a stark record, a 27-22 victory in Bloemfontein starting a magnificent run of ten consecutive triumphs against the Tri-Nations triumvirate. Calling on blood and thunder in equal measure, it was those folkloric results – including legendary wins at Wellington and Melbourne in June 2003 – that earned enough momentum to capture the Webb-Ellis trophy.
Woodward was astute in promoting the challenge of the southern hemisphere giants to a plateau beyond his charges’ routine fixtures against European opposition. As well as an increase in speed, physicality and skill, there is also an aura of trepidation to contend with during clashes with SANZAR outfits, especially away from home.
It is a precipice that Wales are teetering on presently. Three Grand Slams in seven years has elevated them to (preposterous) parallels with the golden generation of the 1970s. However, for all their success in the Six Nations, their record against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in the same period makes for dioramic, desolate reading: played 25, lost 22, drawn one, won two.
The statistics are grim and, though the players would argue otherwise, they have clearly infiltrated into the Welsh psyche. Even during last autumn’s lauded World Cup campaign, there was an excruciating inevitability about the 17-16 pool stage defeat to South Africa. With twenty minutes left and his team 16-10 in front, Toby Faletau marauded towards the Springbok line before linking up with a rampaging Jamie Roberts. Nothing but a turnover ensued. The foot was on the throat yet, somehow, Peter de Villiers’ men escaped.
Amid a six-month avalanche of accolades, there have also been twin losses to Australia by the combined total of nine points. If this young, truly thrilling squad are to make a significant mark on the 2015 World Cup, they must exorcise some demons during June’s tour Down Under and translate their European winning mentality into an Antipodean dialect.
With the news that talismanic skipper Sam Warburton should now be fit to lead the party, there is little reason to doubt Warren Gatland’s credentials of returning with an elusive Wallaby scalp. After all, thanks to the three-Test schedule, it will provide a very apt dress rehearsal for the British Lions assignment that will certainly be his to oversee 12 months later.
Speaking last week at the Rosslyn Park HSBC Schools Sevens, Wales legend Gareth Edwards appeared extremely hopeful of a mould-breaking accomplishment.
“This group can certainly take that southern hemisphere victory, but they will have to marry their ability with belief,” said the former scrum-half. “In any sport, confidence is a potent ingredient. This is an immediate challenge and will be an intriguing confrontation, especially after Wales have beaten the best of what is over here.
“The beauty of this Wales squad at the moment is that it is young and has a real hunger about it. Gatland has given them the ammunition to feel that way and now they are a very difficult side to beat.”
Edwards, as you might expect, is correct. Wales’ most inspiring quality as a collective is their fearlessness. Whereas Woodward could rely on an impeccably well-drilled ‘Dad’s Army’ of gnarled lieutenants under the warrior king Martin Johnson, many of the dragons heading to the other side of the world are merely lads. Very likely lads, mind.
In the backline, George North, Alex Cuthbert and Jonathan Davies – aged 19, 21 and 23 respectively – are demolishing defences well before their prime, and definitely have the defensive blend of pace and power to nullify the electricity of Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor, even on rock-hard pitches.
The loose fowards are abrasive and energetic too. Although Australia captain David Pocock is a game-breaking openside, the true blue heartbeat of Wallaby rugby and an unrivalled pest at the breakdown, Wales may have an antidote in Dan Lydiate, Faletau and Warburton, not to mention the underrated Osprey Justin Tuperic.
Crucially, there is experience in key areas to channel the fervour of youth lest it become hasty or impatient. The front row houses three 2009 British Lions veterans – Adam Jones, Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins – who must be licking their lips after seeing what Dan Cole and chums managed at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium in 2010.
Mike Phillips, a colossus in the number nine jersey, will be confident of harnessing the Aussies’ diminutive general Will Genia, whose ability to direct attacks around the fringes is unparalleled. Jamie Roberts, meanwhile, can marshal any midfield.
A glaring cause for concern is the lineout, which could so easily have derailed Grand Slam aspirations over the past six weeks. If that comes right – and it should with the wealth of quality second-row options available to Gatland – Wales become a machine that is even better oiled, toning a fleshy underbelly that would be mercilessly mauled by James Horwill and friends.
Beating ‘The Bad Guys’ will not be easy, especially with the weight of history to shake from the shoulders. This though, is the summer that Wales need to graduate from local heroes into super ones.
Gareth Edwards was a guest of HSBC at the world’s largest schools sevens tournament, The Rosslyn ParkHSBC National Schools Sevens. For more information www.rpns7.co.uk