In South Wales, memories are long and tempers are short when it comes to rugby. Ron Waldron turned the Neath side of the late 80s into one of the most feared club sides in the UK, and so was invited by the Welsh Rugby Union to do the same with the national side. He promptly lost 70% of his games in charge and retired from stress after his players unwound from their 60 point hammering by the Wallabies with a brawl at the post-match dinner. Waldron was Wales’ last home-grown coach until Gareth Jenkins was appointed in April last year.
Criticised for ignoring players from other clubs and selecting his All Blacks en masse for Wales, he still defends his selection policy: “What people didn't realise at the time was that we had one and a half teams in Wales, and they were players from Neath and Llanelli. The rest of the clubs just had a dribbling of players. People thought our club football was good enough, but it hadn't been for a long time.”
History tends to repeat itself. After being beaten in Italy, Gareth Jenkins has exactly the same CV as Wales coach as Waldron: played 10, won 2, drawn 1, lost 7. He stands accused of loading his Wales side with players from Llanelli, with a sprinkling of players from the Neath-Swansea Ospreys and the other regions. All it needs is for a fight to erupt over the prawn cocktails on Saturday night and the symmetry will be complete.
You can’t really blame Jenkins. Llanelli are the only Welsh region left in this year’s Heineken Cup, qualifying as second seeds and handing Toulouse a painful beating at home along the way. Success in the group stages owes as much to his careful moulding of the Scarlets over 24 years as their coach as it does to the talent of the players down at Stradey.
But no one is invulnerable to the sense of frustration bubbling up in Wales. Take Dwayne Peel and Stephen Jones: first pick for the Lions in 2005, identifiably the best half-back pairing in the northern hemisphere in 2006, getting hate mail in 2007. Form seems to have deserted both and with it, their supporters. Current thinking on how to address Wales’ woes is to drop the Llanelli half-backs, bring in Mike Phillips from Cardiff at scrum half and move James Hook in to the fly half berth which occupies such a key position in the Welsh rugby psyche.
Even allowing for the Welsh public’s fantasy of turning Hook into the second coming of Barry John, this might not be such a bad idea. Global rugby pre-eminence in 2007 belongs to teams who rule at the breakdown: New Zealand in the south, Ireland in the north. Wales couldn’t turn over Italian ball at the ruck and they had trouble hanging on to their own. But when it works, it really works: Wales won a Grand Slam in 2005 by turbo-charging the ruck, shifting the ball and the point of contact quickly and unchaining their outside backs. Phillips, 6’3” and 15 stone, could act as an extra back row forward to bolster Ryan Jones, Popham and Martyn Williams and get Wales on the front foot. A small tactical tweak could pay big dividends.
That changes the shape of the Welsh line. Jenkins would move Tom Shanklin inside to 12, start Gareth Thomas at 13 and then stick with the mix of speed and guile in his back three. A supersized midfield could work well against England’s lighter centre combination, opening up space in the wide channels.
People will forget that Wales were whitewashed in 2003 and then went on to miss the World Cup semi-finals by a whisker, but it is an unavoidable fact that they haven’t beaten a side in the top 10 of IRB’s global rankings since Mike Ruddock walked mid-way through the 2006 Six Nations tournament. The saes are coming down to Cardiff to drive a stake through their heart.
Beat England, and Jenkins buys himself six months of space to get it right for the World Cup. Lose, and he joins Waldron as the man who favoured his own, dropped a national hero in Gavin Henson and got his comeuppance. Either way, a repeat prescription for happy pills will be indispensable.