Hansen contemplates the journey from chaos

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The Independent Online

These are hard times for Welsh rugby, and honest men differ on how to make them easier, on whether they can be made easier, on what the priorities are. One debate follows another, the nation's newspapers are crammed with the heartfelt outpourings of disconsolate patriots and yesterday's extraordinary general meeting of the Welsh Rugby Union in Cardiff was seen as the most important event in the history of the game in Wales.

The singular reality of Saturday's 27-22 defeat by Scotland at the Millennium Stadium together with delivery by 100 protesters of a 6,000-signature petition calling for a complete overhaul and an end to debilitating internecine strife is that only the most radical measures can prevent Welsh rugby from disappearing off the international map.

In the gloomy reflections of past heroes, such notable figures as Cliff Morgan, Bleddyn Williams, Jack Matthews and Jonathan Davies, there is an unavoidable sense of lost heritage, a draining away of the instinct that was central to glory in the game. God help Welsh rugby when the passion of its support gives way, as it did on Saturday, to the cretinous Mexican wave.

Before the Six Nations programme began, before Graham Henry called it a day, it was pretty obvious that Wales would be fortunate to finish above the bottom places, avoiding the wooden spoon only because of Italy's patent limitations. On Saturday we heard Jeremy Guscott say on television that Italy are only in the championship to ensure that Scotland and Wales win a match. That is what it has come to. France with their Grand Slam and England so far ahead of the rest that the establishment of a two-tier championship is pretty obvious. Ireland can give them a game but only at home.

For Wales, silver linings are hard to come by. Consecutively, over four years, the under-18 team has seen off the other home countries. There are encouraging developments at under-21 level. "There are good young players out there," Williams said on Friday at the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame annual dinner. That so many of those aspirants find themselves filling the replacements' bench when they graduate is a further indictment of the thinking that now prevails in Welsh rugby.

Despite the hope brought by the selection of speedy young Welsh backs, Saturday's performance brought an all too familiar story: sloppy possession, the absence of basic skills, poor decision-making, dreadful line-out play and indiscipline. Holding a narrow lead as injury time approached, Wales gave up two penalties.

The withdrawal, 15 minutes from time, of Robert Howley, seemed to say it all. Having suddenly chosen to end his terrific international career, prematurely in many minds, 18 months ahead of the next World Cup, his departure was symbolic of Welsh frustration, underlining the chaos. Frustration could be found, too, in the demeanour of the newly appointed Wales coach, Steve Hansen. Where now? Hansen shrugged. He had to agree, this was a worst-ever performance by Wales, one to suggest further nightmares. Draw breath, pore over videos, the quest for a solution goes on and on. "It's irrelevant that we finished second-bottom in the championship," Hansen said. "We just didn't play anywhere near our capabilities. I don't know why. But there is going to be a lot of pain. The journey is going to being long and hard.'

The words are as familiar to Welsh supporters as the many disappointments they have come to endure. Hard work, a rocky road to travel. They heard it all from Graham Henry before he called it a day, realising that the task was beyond him. Meaning a more productive structure, Hansen added: "We can only hope that something be will be put in place to make the game in Wales more competitive."

The saddest aspect of Saturday's match, one Scotland deserved to win by virtue of their ability to establish control at critical stages, was that many of the Welsh supporters didn't appear to care one way or another. No more than a day out at the Millennium, dress up, paint your face, off to the stadium bars for another tray of pints. Sure, they sang the old battle hymns but with none of the old conviction. Worn down over many years by the parlous state of Welsh rugby, many too young to remember when Gareth and Barry, Gerald and JPR bestrode the game, their passion can no longer be taken for granted. Unless Welsh rugby takes that on board, doom is nigh.