Monday, October 1, 2007

Sad Sad Wales

Gareth fails to deliver
Sep 30 2007

by Simon Roberts, Wales On Sunday

GARETH JENKINS couldn’t even keep his appointment with judgement day after Wales’ humiliating exit from the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France.

The Wales coach asked to be judged on this World Cup, setting himself a minimum requirement of a quarter-final place.

But the former Scarlets supremo didn’t even make it that far as Fiji joined their Pacific Islands neighbours Samoa in claiming the scalp of Wales in the competition.

Jenkins became the third Wales coach to fail to reach the knockout stages of rugby’s showpiece event.

He joins Alan Davies in 1991 and Alex Evans four years later in an unwanted select band, but neither of them had the time Jenkins has had in charge.

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That pair were effectively caretaker coaches, handed mission impossibles on the eve of the tournaments.

By contrast, Jenkins has had 16 months to build a record of played 20, won six, lost 13 and drawn one.

Those statistics show how much Wales have stagnated with him in charge.

And for that reason alone, his position as national coach is now untenable.

He is a passionate and decent man, but it’s time for him resign and acknowledge that Test match rugby came too late in his coaching career.

Wales were clueless for much of this match and didn’t deserve to reach the quarter-finals.

Jenkins accepted his part in this desperate afternoon for Welsh rugby with dignity and deep down he knows his future as national coach is probably over.

But he isn’t the only one culpable for this sorry state of affairs – this has been coming for a long, long time.

Grand Slam-winning coach Mike Ruddock has to take his share of the responsibility.

His decision to walk away from the job, with 16 months to go until the World Cup, forced the need for a new coach when they should have been in the middle of planning for the tournament.

The Welsh Rugby Union Board, who bowed to the public clamour for Jenkins’ appointment, are also culpable.

They made a decision to ease the public pressure on their own positions, rather than on who could do the job. This was a mess of their own creation.

The Welsh players have to take their share of the responsibility for what happens on the field.

They didn’t even look like a team against Fiji and were embarrassed by the collective spirit of the men in white.

There is something rotten to the core of a team when you see the sight of Dwayne Peel being replaced by Mike Phillips and they don’t even acknowledge each other as they pass on the park.

One of the admirable qualities of this Wales squad was their tightness as a group. It evaporated in Nantes yesterday.

After the game, Jenkins quite rightly pointed to the unrealistic expectation heaped on the Wales national side and the lack of respect for what other rugby nations around the world are capable of doing.

But the finances and the so-called professionalism in Welsh rugby deserves better than the sorry shambles on this French field.

Wales are a better rugby nation than this – but one that has been struck by a real malaise and a lack of leadership.

Jenkins must have seen this defeat coming. The standards, on and off the field, have simply not been good enough.

The benchmark of any professional coach is whether he improves on what went before. Jenkins has not done that.

Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, two former Wales coaches now with New Zealand, both reached the last eight of the World Cup with less talented and less experienced squads than Jenkins has had at his disposal.

Four years ago, at the same stage of the tournament, Wales lit up the 2003 World Cup in Australia with a breathtaking performance against the All Blacks which breathed life back into our national game.

Four years on, a stronger and more experienced Wales squad have failed to realise their full potential, stuttered their way through and flattered to deceive throughout France 2007.

Wales did start with real purpose and were unlucky not to take the lead after only the first minute.

Stephen Jones spun out of a few tackle to launch a counter-attack, only for Shane Williams to be tackled into touch just short of the corner flag.

Fly-half Jones converted and missed a penalty before Wales were rocked by an incredible salvo of three tries in nine minutes by Fiji, which left the men in red reeling at 25-3 midway through the first half.

Wales only had themselves to blame after some of the dumbest rugby you will have ever seen on a rugby field.

They appeared to have taken the sting out of the Fijians, but then the Welsh players decided to throw the ball around.

The Welsh pack had been dominant in the scrum, but Gloucester-bound flanker Akapusa Qera, who was the most influential player on the field, started the ball rolling with his side’s first try.

Vilimoni Delasau then notched a superb opportunist score after he kicked his way around and over the Welsh defence, beating Gareth Thomas and Mark Jones to the bounce, before giant lock Kele Leawere crashed over from short-range to stun Wales.

Wales finally woke up and shunned some easy penalty shots at goal to apply the pressure through the scrum and after a handful attempts, No 8 Alix Popham crossed and they went in 25-10 behind.

After the break, they managed to reply, while flanker Qera was in the sin-bin, with a superb solo try by wing Shane Williams before Thomas celebrated his 100th cap with his 40th try for his country.

Wing Mark Jones added another, only for ex-Pontypridd outside-half Nicky Little to edge Fiji ahead.

Wales finally looked to have it won when Martyn Williams scored from a late interception. But the Fijians roared into attack and Graham Deves crawled over from short-range to send Wales home from the World Cup.

Sadly, it was all they deserved for such a disappointing tournament.

Wales Tries: A Popham, S Williams, G Thomas, M Jones, M Williams; Cons: S Jones (2), J Hook; Pens: J Hook

Fiji Tries: A Qera, V Delasau, K Leaware, G Deves; Cons: N Little (3); Pens: N Little (4)

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