In many ways, I feel this could be a watershed Six Nations Championship for Wales. If Rob Howley gets his selection and tactics right, then he will have put Wales on a prosperous path as we head toward the 2019 World Cup.
If he fails to evolve their style of play sufficiently, or the Welsh players struggle to adapt to the changes Howley is trying to implement, then Wales will find themselves stuck between two stools just as rugby’s showcase event looms on the horizon.
Although this may seem an alarmist conclusion, consider the position in which Wales now find themselves. Yes, they may kick off their Six Nations campaign against Italy with a win, but Conor O’Shea will have taken note of Wales’ failings during the Autumn.
The Italian coach has also spoken about his side earning the respect of their rivals this season. Beating Wales would go a long way to achieving their goal, and heap further pressure on Howley.
Assisting O’Shea this season are Mike Catt and Brendan Venter, two shrewd and experienced operators. During the autumn, Italy didn’t play with the invention you would expect of a team coached by O’Shea, but as their victory over South Africa demonstrated, there was an emphasis on doing the basics really well.
In fact, Venter’s fingerprints were evident throughout Italy’s triumph over the Springboks, particularly in defence.
Wales won’t have it all their own way in Rome, and face the very real prospect of being turned over before facing into a Championship defining game against England.
Howley will have to strike a balance between the game Wales are currently capable of playing the style he wants to employ. You can’t simply erase Warren Gatland’s influence overnight.
Likewise, as their narrow win over Japan illustrated, Wales are not yet in a position to adopt a more expansive game plan. Howley needs to find ways of bringing George North off his wing so as to allow him attack space and not look for contact in midfield.
Howley also faces a big decision over who to play at fullback, where Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny go head to head. He must persist with Scott Williams in midfield, but will have to develop a style of play that allows the Scarlets playmaker to flourish.
It isn’t just a case of evolving their strategy for the sake of it. Wales no longer possess a tight five that can trouble teams by taking the ball around the corner.
Outside of Alun Wyn Jones, Wales lack players like Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins and Richard Hibbard. This places an awful lot of pressure on their back row to get over the gain line. Indeed, if the likes of Sam Warburton are carrying the ball close in, then he’s not running support lines or clearing out rucks to ensure quick ball.
Wales must therefore evolve out of necessity if they are to remain competitive. By bringing quality coaches like Alex King and Ben Ryan into the fold, Howley is giving his side every opportunity of doing so, but don’t discount an upset in Rome next weekend.
Andy Goode Pundit Arena
On this week’s edition of the Oval Office, we discuss Ireland’s selection policy for overseas players, the England captaincy and more…