Rugby Union: Search for pride after the fall

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The Independent Online
IT WAS like being witness to a spectacular car crash. One minute Wales were in the driving seat, the next they were dealing with the emergency services. Like England, who scored eight tries, the inquest will run and run.

"We've had the knee-jerk reaction," John Humphreys said. "Sack the coaches, sack the management and replace the team with the Wales A XV. We couldn't have put a much better side out against England and the vast majority of the Welsh public would have picked that team. Once the players are on the pitch there's not a lot you can do."

Humphreys, who has led Wales 17 times and is the captain of Cardiff, came on with 16 minutes remaining at Twickenham and had time to put in a late challenge on Matt Dawson after the scrum-half had run in one of the softest tries in international rugby. Twice Dawson nearly stumbled, probably through a fit of laughter. "I was so angry, so frustrated," Humphreys said. "I couldn't believe we were in that situation. It was surreal. We'd started off so well, then everything just fell apart. It was shocking in every sense. In the dressing-room nothing was said. The management were distraught."

After England scored four tries, all converted, in 16 minutes to go from 6-12 to 34-12, there were signs that they were taking the mickey. "It goes with the territory," Humphreys said. "If you're giving somebody a walloping you do what you want. If Wales had been in a similar position they'd have taken the piss as well. You'd have thought that under the circumstances we would have got madder and would have stood up for ourselves. It didn't happen."

Nor did the agony end with the final whistle. Humphreys describes the post-match dinner at the Hilton as "torture". "It's an outdated custom which is for the benefit of everybody bar the players. They have to sit and bear it, listening to speeches that they've heard before anybody has got to their feet. The England players were very gracious. The game was rarely mentioned. What can you say?"

Before the match Kevin Bowring, the coach, said: "Over the past two years Wales has rediscovered its style and has become positive and adventurous. We have to be judged by wins and losses and we have to ensure that winning becomes a habit." Nobody expected this.

"I think it was a freak result and I hope to God it won't happen again," Humphreys said. "I don't think there's a huge rift between the countries. Wales could have beaten France in Paris last season. Since then South Africa put 50 points on France and if they played again you would never get that result. This month France could have beaten England by 40 points and what would have been said then? I refuse to believe that England are that much better than Wales. It was a bit like a Super 12 match and the scoreboard doesn't reflect what happened.

"A lot has been said about Kevin and the management but it's the players who have to have a good honest look at themselves. The real worry is the fact that we seemed to lose heart. That's the most humiliating and unacceptable thing of all. It's not a question of getting stuck in. That's something you tell eight-year-olds to do. When you play for your country, pride is not an optional extra."

Pride has a reputation for coming before a fall and, on a practical level, the collapse followed the demise of the Welsh pack. Then there was the nonsense about where Neil Jenkins should play. The answer, perhaps, is nowhere. Jenkins is first and foremost a goalkicker but in the context of the defeats to New Zealand and England (more than 100 points conceded) the role is irrelevant.

The wider picture shows an almost incestuous Welsh first division of only eight clubs, half of whom are fighting to avoid relegation. "Our domestic game is not as strong as the English Premiership," Humphreys added. "There's a natural progression towards England because the money's far greater. Wales hasn't even got a sponsor for its leagues. That is why we value European competition so much. Without that we'll always be, mentally at least, one step behind.

"We have produced some fantastic Under-19 sides but whereas the youngsters in New Zealand and England go on to represent their national side, ours don't. We are losing a lot of talent and nobody knows why."

Last weekend there was a feeling the Five Nations' Championship had been debased. "People were bound to say it has developed into a two-tier competition but I think they're wrong," Humphreys said. "It's a fantastic championship with a wonderful history and all of a sudden it's being brought into question by a few weird results.

"This is no time for panic. Wales now have to regroup, beat Scotland and beat them well. If Wales make sweeping changes it will be an admission that everything they have been trying to do was all wrong. If people threw the towel in, then they should go. This has to be a soul-searching experience."