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New regime, same Six Nations result for Wales

Warren Gatland has reached two World Cup semi-finals with Wales

So, it is as you were for Wales in the Six Nations.

There has been a change of coach, with Warren Gatland returning at the expense of another New Zealander, Wayne Pivac, but the stark statistics are identical.

One win, four defeats and a fifth-place finish as Wales emulated their results of 2022.

It has been a painful campaign at times on and off the field, punctuated only by the odd ray of hope, most notably a welcome away win in Italy.

Defeats against Ireland, Scotland, England and France punctured the fanciful notion that Gatland’s return would eradicate all the problems of Welsh rugby.

As Ireland celebrate a Grand Slam, the struggling Wales squad is in major transition on the field and the Welsh game remains in crisis off it.

New combinations

Gatland has brought in a new backroom team with Mike Forshaw and Alex King replacing the previous defence coach Gethin Jenkins and attack coach Stephen Jones respectively.

Wales leaked 19 tries during the tournament as opposition attacks managed to break down the defensive system with the points difference the worst in the tournament.

The attack improved as the campaign progressed, after the side only scored three tries in the first three matches.

Four more tries came against Italy in Rome before four scores in defeat in Paris ensured at least a losing bonus point.

Welsh fans began to see the emergence of a blueprint at the Stade de France, especially in the opening 20 minutes and the final quarter. This Welsh squad is still searching for its identity.

Wales will have some management changes before the World Cup, with head of performance Paul Stridgeon leaving with immediate effect.

World Cup lies in wait

Wales coach Gatland and captain Ken Owens were both quite bullish about their World Cup hopes after defeat to France.

Gatland warned opposition sides they would be surprised about how good his team would be in France later this year, while Owens insisted Wales would raise some eyebrows at the global tournament.

The results of 13 defeats in 17 matches might not back up those confident assertions but the predictions are based on the amount of time Gatland will have with the squad before the tournament starts in September.

There will be brutal fitness training camps in July, planned for Switzerland and Turkey, and three warm-up matches in August – a double-header against England in Cardiff and Twickenham and the visit of world champions South Africa to the Principality Stadium.

Wales begin the tournament against Fiji in Bordeaux on 10 September before facing Portugal, Australia and Georgia in Nice, Lyon and Nantes respectively.

They have benefited from the World Cup draw being made early with the current top five sides in the world – Ireland, France, New Zealand, South Africa and Scotland – in the other half of the draw.

That means if Wales can finish in the top two of their pool and achieve quarter-final qualification they are likely to face England or Argentina in the last eight.

Warren Gatland with Wales players in training
Warren Gatland has had little preparation time with his squad having only returned for his second spell in charge in December

Finding the formula

Gatland has been striving to find a settled side but 26 changes during the tournament suggest it has been a struggle.

Only captain Owens, wing Josh Adams and second row Adam Beard started every game as Wales used 35 players across the five matches.

Differing combinations and a lack of selection consistency have been evident.

Gatland will have those three World Cup warm-up games to determine his 33-man squad.

Players who missed the tournament through injury like Johnny Williams, Dewi Lake and Gareth Anscombe – and perhaps Will Rowlands, depending on whether he is eligible under the new 25-cap rule – will have a chance to stake their claim.

Individuals who are out of favour such as Ross Moriarty and Nicky Smith should also be able to make their case.

“Those things will evolve,” said Gatland. “You don’t pigeon-hole yourself into making those decisions now.

“It is important that everyone gets an opportunity, there are players coming back from injury, we haven’t spoken to anyone else who might be eligible with the change of the eligibility rules, and no doubt there will be some bolters who put up their hand with the way they potentially train in the camps.

“You go in with an open mind and not wanting to make those decisions too early.

“So I am miles away from thinking what a 33 is going to be at the moment.”

Experience or youth?

L-R: Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar move in as Antoine Dupont tries to break free of George North
Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar and George North try to tackle France captain Antoine Dupont

Gatland will have a major decision to make about what he does about the stalwarts who have served Welsh rugby so well for more than a decade.

He stated before the French fixture that up to eight players might be playing their last Six Nations match in Paris.

Gatland did not name those individuals but the likes of Alun Wyn Jones, 37, Ken Owens, 36, Rhys Webb, 34, Leigh Halfpenny, 34, Dan Biggar, 33, Justin Tipuric, 33, Taulupe Faletau, 32, and George North, 30, would be the leading contenders for his prediction.

There is a natural changing of the guard after the World Cup but what the Wales coach decides to do with the old timers before the tournament will be interesting.

Gatland has shown little sentiment in previous World Cup build-ups after not selecting Martyn Williams for the 2011 tournament and ditching Richard Hibbard, Mike Phillips and James Hook four years later.

Wales have given opportunities to youngsters like Joe Hawkins, Mason Grady and Dafydd Jenkins who are all just 20, while Christ Tshiunza, Jac Morgan and Tommy Reffell also bring the average age down.

Crisis continues

There will be no respite for the Welsh Rugby Union after this tournament ends as bosses try to tackle the off-the-field controversies that have beset the game in Wales.

This competition will probably not be remembered for the underwhelming results achieved, but more for the fact Wales almost did not play against England in Cardiff because of a dispute over players’ contracts.

The strike was averted, concessions were made and contracts have since been offered to players.

But wages will be drastically reduced and the four regions are set to be even less competitive next season in the United Rugby Championship and European competition.

Then there is the little matter of an extraordinary general meeting on Sunday, 26 March to try to persuade the clubs to agree to major governance changes.

This has been prompted by the BBC Wales Investigates programme that raised accusations of sexism and misogyny within the organisation and ultimately led to the departure of former chief executive Steve Phillips.

Welsh rugby needs to change off the field to help the game on it and it has an opportunity next weekend to start that process.

The status quo cannot remain. It certainly cannot be ‘as you were’ any more.