Where does Welsh rugby go from here? It’s been a regular question lately and it’s pertinent again after another disastrous week.
Sport in Wales has made headlines for all the wrong reasons, with the national team threatening to attack England over contractual issues.
That drastic action was avoided, but given the preparation, Warren Gatland’s men were perhaps predictably dominated and beaten in a 20-10 loss to Steve Borthwick’s side.
As Wales prop up the Six Nations table, one wonders how it got to that point.
More importantly, what is the way out of this latest and perhaps most damaging Welsh rugby crisis?
Facts and figures sometimes don’t tell the story. In this situation though, they do.
Here are some damning statistics from Welsh rugby.
The defeat by England was their 12th in 15 games, a run that goes back to the Wayne Pivac era.
It was the Six Nations’ third consecutive defeat, making Wales their worst start to the tournament since 2007.
Wales hasn’t been whitewashed since Steve Hansen’s 2003 class suffered that fate, but a repeat is now a realistic prospect.
Wales travel to play Italy in Rome in the potential Wooden Spoon decider on March 11, before facing France in Paris seven days later.
England emulated Ireland in achieving their biggest margin of victory against Wales since 2003, while Scotland compiled a record 35-7 victory in the Murrayfield match.
This is also the first year that Wales have not won a Six Nations match at home during a tournament since 2003.
Wales has slipped to 10th in the world rankings after holding that position in 2007 and 2013.
Next month, they could drop outside the top 10 for the first time. Somber reading across the board.
In Gatland’s first stint in charge, between 2007 and 2019, it was usually recognizable as it was and represented his side.
It wasn’t always the success that people selectively remember, but you knew the folks he was picking reinvented it from many sides.
Judging by his three selections since his return, Gatland are looking for their strongest team, or perhaps more importantly, the team they want to field in the opening game of the World Cup against Fiji in September.
What we witness is a mix and match as Gatland balances over-30s like Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, George North, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny in their early 20s. Tshiunza, Dafydd Jenkins, Tommy Reffell, Jac Morgan, Joe Hawkins and Mason Grady. There is nothing too much in the middle age group.
Five changes from Ireland to Scotland and a further nine changes to the England clash show that Gatland is still on the hunt for its first choice.
His post-match comments after England suggest he will be looking for cohesion and continuity rather than experimentation against Italy.
The identity crisis is not limited to gaming personnel, with coaching appointments also coming under scrutiny.
Familiar figures of Rob Howley, whose reappointment was blocked by the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) board, and Shaun Edwards are no longer on Gatland’s side.
He hired a new backing coach in Mike Forshaw, a man he had never seen before, as Wales conceded 12 tries in three games.
Under new attacking coach Alex King, Wales managed just three tries in three games, including an interception try and a rolling maul score.
Playstyle and tactics are also under scrutiny. The old term ‘Warrenball’, used to describe Wales’ style of play in Gatland’s first reign, used to irritate the New Zealander, but was based on great halfbacks like Jamie Roberts taking the sideline over the winning line, with the game – Development plan from there.
Wales’ shooting tactics against England, where they have regularly handed possession to full-back Freddie Steward, have come under scrutiny.
The tactics seemed wrong and the inability to change them on the pitch was a concern.
return from gatland
It was always going to be a gamble for Gatland when he decided to return for a second spell in Wales, replacing compatriot Pivac in December 2022.
Gatland’s status was secured after his initial 12-year spell in Wales, which included three Grand Slams, four Six Nations titles and two World Cup semi-final appearances.
Welsh rugby was in disarray when Gatland returned at the end of last year and has not improved since.
Now he has lost three consecutive Six Nations matches for the first time as Wales manager and is facing the whitewash of the tournament.
Borthwick followed Ireland boss Andy Farrell and Scotland manager Gregor Townsend to get the better of the former British & Irish Lions boss.
So for all his trophies and success with the Lions, Gatland has issues.
Reviving this Wales team ahead of the World Cup later this year is perhaps their greatest achievement.
Gatland has repeatedly stated that he believes he can transform the team with the few months he has with them before the global tournament. There will certainly be a lot of work to do.
Works outside the field
England’s defeat was perhaps inevitable given the troubled build-up, with concessions made by both sides to ensure the match went ahead.
The main long-term questions remain around the professional game in Wales and the future of its regional players.
A freeze has been placed on the supply of player contracts, with uncertainty over the long-term future of players as more than 70 find themselves without deals beyond this season.
Talks are ongoing with Cardiff, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets over a new six-year funding framework, with the regions receiving official documentation last week.
The Wales players have been told they will be offered new deals next week, with WRU caretaker chief executive Nigel Walker saying he will. keep the “feet in the fire” of the four regions if that does not happen.
Ken Owens is one of the few figures to emerge with credit from Welsh rugby’s latest woeful saga, the captain having proved instrumental in player negotiations.
Owens spoke of everyone working together to ensure that Welsh rugby did not become a laughing stock again.
Whether Walker’s comments, made on Saturday in front of millions of people on national television, will antagonize the troubled relationship between the WRU and the regions remains to be seen.
Walker has proven to be a beacon of contrition since taking over his interim role following the resignation of Steve Phillips.
He apologized to past WRU players and staff who accused the governing body of having a toxic and sexist culture, allegations which are being investigated by an independent task force.
Walker will demand that diplomatic approach once again with the small matter of an extraordinary general meeting on March 26 at which major governance changes will be on the agenda.
Wales’ last Six Nations whitewash was followed by the regional rugby revolution. Whether similar seismic shifts will happen in the domestic game any time soon remains to be seen.
Before all that, Wales desperately need a win from somewhere, but form suggests Italy will be favorites at the Stadio Olimpico.
They pushed Ireland and France close in Rome but were always eyeing visiting Wales, chasing their first Six Nations home win since 2013.
Memories will be fresh for both sides of last year’s clash in Cardiff, when Italy snapped their seven-year, 36-game Six Nations losing streak with a surprise late victory.
Wales suffered defeats in the Italian capital in 2003 and 2007 and there are similarities between those campaigns and this one.
Gatland will be determined to ensure that the list of Welsh defeats in Rome is not extended into next month.
If he fails in that pursuit, then where, you wonder, would Welsh rugby go from there?