Warren Gatland staring at first Six Nations wooden spoon for 26 years as France blitz Wales

Warren Gatland staring at first Six Nations wooden spoon for 26 years as France blitz Wales

What is Welsh for deja vu? For so long another brave effort from the red-clad youngsters, but ultimately another defeat and Warren Gatland is now looking squarely at Wales’ first wooden spoon in the Championship in 21 years and his first in 26 years, when the Six Nations were but Five and the Kiwi was only 34 years old.

Of course, 1998 was when Gatland was at the start of his remarkable coaching career in charge of Ireland and even if the transformation of the green isle is not lesson enough concerning the vicissitudes and opportunities of time, then this was an afternoon when the rapidly flipflopped fortunes of Wales – champions but three years ago – were all too painfully apparent.

And that much was obvious just an hour or so after Max Boyce had reprised his glorious 1970s act to send the home support into the match on such a positive wave of “Hymns and Arias” emotion.

That mellifluous Max melody was still ringing with 19 minutes remaining and Wales were 24-20 ahead and confident of just their second Six Nations win in 12 matches. But after that – no Boyce pun intended – the leaks became alarming and the inability to handle the physical challenge so telling. They conceded 17 points in nine minutes and, rather brutally, 25 in the last quarter.

Not big enough, not experienced enough and, despite their inspiring passages of play that so almost saw them see off Scotland and England last month, not yet good enough. Their hearts are big and their ambition matches their intent, but in terms of bulk, power and dynamism they are woefully inferior when the hammer is down and no amount of exuberance can make up for those deficiencies in modern rugby.

The upshot is that Gatland’s Greenhorns must not only beat Italy here in the Welsh capital on Saturday but either deny Italy a bonus point or grab their own five-point haul. And on the evidence of this weekend, the Azzurri must be relishing the possibilities – probabilities, perhaps – of a second consecutive victory in Cardiff and ensuring that it is quite easily their best display in their quarter-of-a-century Championship sojourn.

“Next week is massive for us,” Gatland said, after presiding over his eighth defeat in his last nine Six Nations games. “But we’ve got to be excited by that. We’ve got to embrace that challenge and can’t hide from the stat [of Wales not ‘winning’ the wooden spoon in more than two decades]. You can’t go into your shell. There’s going to be a lot of pressure. We’ve got to front up. There were lots of parts of that game that were reasonably good.”

Gatland is not the type to duck from a fight and welcomed the Italian uprising. “I thought it was a good performance [in beating Scotland on Saturday]” he said. “Good for the tournament as well, having a lot of teams under pressure and creating jeopardy. “They’ve been good, staying in the fight, keeping the scoreboard ticking over. Physically, they look good at this level. It’s going to be massive for them, thinking they can finish in their best ever position. And yeah, it’s become pretty important for us.”

Gatland can – and will – ring back George North, who did not play in this fixture after being either dropped or rested, depending on your opinion on the controversial selection in midfield. In truth, the centre duo of Owen Watkin and Joe Roberts were not the problem and with a try apiece more than justified the Kiwi’s bold decision.

The burning, brutal issue was the devastation inflicted when the replacements came on and analysing the respective benches that should not have been a shock. Fabien Glathie could bring on 20st front-rowers with notches already on their creaking belts. But Gatland, with a commendable eye to the future, had to whistle for Evan Llloyd, a hooker called into the squad after the late withdrawal of Ryan Elias who has not yet even started a first-class match and who was a backrower just a few years ago.

Lloyd is a fine young prospect and merely an example of the small pool, but all those years of Wayne Pivac relying on the old hens and not blooding the chicks have now come home to roost. Wales must have patience, but with that humble wooden utensil looming over their heads like the sword of Damocles, the next week will be all about the present and certainly not the future.

Match details

Scoring sequence: 3-0 Costelow pen, 3-3 Ramos pen, 8-3 Dyer try, 10-3 Costelow con, 10-6 Ramos pen, 10-11 Fickou try, 10-13 Ramos con, 15-13 Williams try, 17-13 Costelow con, 17-18 Le Garrec try, 17-20 Ramos con, 22-20 Roberts try, 24-20 Costelow con, 24-23 Ramos pen, 24-28 Colombe try, 24-30 Ramos con, 24-35 R Taofifenua try, 24-37 Ramos con, 24-40 Ramos pen. H-T: 17-20

Wales: C Winnett; J Adams, J Roberts (Grady 61), O Watkin, R Dyer; S Costelow (I Lloyd 56), T Williams (Davies 56); G Thomas (Domachowski 70), E Dee (E Lloyd 70), K Assiratti (Lewis 44), W Rowlands (Martin 70), A Beard, D Jenkins (c), T Reffell (Mann 56), A Wainwright.

France: L Barré; D Penaud, G Fickou, N Depoortère (Moefana 70), L Bielle-Biarrey; T Ramos, N Le Garrec (Lucu 70); C Baille (S Taofifenua 51), J Marchand (Mauvaka 51), U Atonio (Colombe 51), T Flament, E Meafou (R Taofifenua 51), F Cros (Boudehent 70), C Ollivon (Roumat 62), G Alldritt (c).

Referee: L Pearce (RFU)

Attendance: 71,242


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