Harsh lessons from autumn agony for Wales as Australia complete clean sweep
22:30 GMT, 2 December 2012
For 79 minutes and 33 seconds it looked like Wales would finish a rotten autumn in some style, then Kurtley Beale changed everything with a final try to snatch a 14-12 victory for Australia.
The players stood apart on their own tryline, heads hanging and lungs burning, as Leigh Halfpenny lay sprawled on the floor receiving treatment after his courageous attempt to stop the attack.
It was a brutal, ugly metaphor for where Welsh rugby is right now.
Fortunately, Halfpenny’s neck injury was not serious and he was released from hospital on Sunday. But the team itself does need treatment because some harsh truths have been exposed this autumn.
Dejected: Wales slumped to four defeats in the autumn internationals
BREAK THE PATTERN
The best game Wales played this year was their first: a blistering start to their Grand Slam Six Nations campaign against Ireland in Dublin. Back in February, they were still on a high from the World Cup and had yet to start choking on the suffocating pressure of the Cardiff bubble.
Against Australia, they recaptured the intensity and precision of that form but the pattern of the year still reads five straight victories, a jolly against the Barbarians and then seven straight defeats.
Scrum-half Mike Phillips described Welsh rugby as a soap opera and for a decade there has been an extraordinary pattern of peaks and troughs — 10 defeats in a row (2002-03), eight wins (2004-05), five defeats (2006-07), five wins (2008), five defeats (2010), then this bizarre year.
DON’T BE A FIT FLOP
There is no point being the fitter side if you are not playing at a pace and intensity that is pushing your opponents beyond their physical limits. The backs lost on average four per cent of their body fat and put on 5kg of muscle during 30 training sessions in 10 days before the autumn, but they failed to exploit that superior fitness.
Late show: Kurtley Beale of Australia scores a last minute against Wales
Until Saturday, in every meeting with a southern hemisphere side this year Wales had been ambushed by the early pace of the game. It is like setting a treadmill to sprint in the gym and then trying to jump on.
This time, despite Australia having 74 per cent possession in the opening quarter, Wales were very aggressive defensively and it put them straight in the game.
BE SMARTER AT THE DEATH
Wales have developed a wicked habit of clutching defeat from the jaws of victory. Three times this year they have lost to the Wallabies in the dying seconds — the total deficit is 13 points in their last four meetings — and it comes down to performing basic skills under pressure.
Warren Gatland talked about closing out the tightest Test matches. ‘It was obvious to us in the stands that they were going to use the ball,’ he said. ‘A couple of players weren’t in the front line defensively at the end. They’ve exposed us.’ Time and time again Wales contrive to lose from winning situations.
THE GATLAND EFFECT
The players have made every effort to play down his absence but the stark results tell their own story. Even though Gatland has overseen two defeats at the end of the autumn since returning, the spike in performance says Wales are back to their best with him at the helm.
Main man: Wales improved with Warren Gatland back at the helm
The problem now is that he is gone again until after the Lions tour. He brings an X factor as a coach, coming up with ideas like a 13-man lineout against the All Blacks.
He has never done a huge amount of hands-on coaching — he has assembled a fine group of coaches to do precisely that — but his presence as head honcho undeniably gives the players a psychological edge. It becomes a weakness when he walks away.
You cannot slip off one-on-one tackling against the southern hemisphere sides. Wales missed 22 against the All Blacks and 15 against Australia. Only Fiji, Scotland and Argentina had worse tackling statistics this autumn. It is uncharacteristic of a team that prides itself on defence.
Sorely missed: Dan Lydiate
Dan Lydiate, a maniac when it comes to tackling, was sorely missed and his absence affected the balance of the back row. In attack, Wales made three clean breaks per match, but their opponents made seven.
At times the match resembled a really impressive tennis rally without anybody actually hitting a winner. Wales have to find a killer instinct from somewhere. They have to make line breaks count.
While the regional game is on a financial precipice, even the national team have not been able to fill the Millennium Stadium all autumn. The visit of the All Blacks was a few thousand short, while 25,000 and 30,000 empty seats stagnated the atmosphere of the Argentina and Samoa matches.
Meanwhile, the players have saved the Welsh Rugby Union at least 500,000 in win bonuses over the past six months. As for absentees, the side run 80 to 90 per cent of their training drills in first-team combinations, but with so many players injured or flying off to France for club duty, preparations have been severely disrupted.
It tells you everything about Rhys Priestland’s year that he has slipped from the No 1 sexiest man in Wales to seventh. He lost his way and his swagger during the Six Nations and has been under relentless pressure since.
But two weeks ago he started seeing the team psychologist and that may just be the secret. Against Australia he showed glimmers of his old self. He has been picked out as the fly-half to take Wales to the 2015 World Cup and has a bespoke coaching regime to harness his talent including individual sessions with a running specialist.
In the playmaker role his form determines the team’s success: when he plays well, Wales play well.