Jonathan Davies: Wales' autumn lesson: not enough of our finest are good enough

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The Independent Online

A win is a win, they say, although try telling that to my fellow diehards in Wales as the misery of Friday's one point-victory over Fiji lingers. Rarely has a win felt so like a defeat.

Indeed, with just 20 minutes left and Wales 10 points down it appeared that the opportunistic Fijians were heading nowhere but the winner's enclosure. But then the sevens specialists blew out of puff and, courtesy of a Nicky Robinson drop-goal five minutes from time, Wales stumbled over the line as 11-10 victors, the union equivalent of a short head. The Principality could sleep easy.

If only. In reality, it could only twitch and turn as next Saturday's visit of South Africa came into vision, a truly scary proposition with Wales in this form and missing this many crucial players. With their blitz defence and tremendous strength, the Springboks could smash the living daylights out of the Grand Slam champions, and I am sure Mike Ruddock already has his men perched in front of the drawing board trying to rediscover at least an iota of the inspiration of March.

Watching Wales capitulate against New Zealand and come so close to humiliation against a courageous but limited Fijian side, it is difficult to think of that Six Nations glory as being in the same century, never mind year.

What will concern the Welsh coach most is the complete loss of his platform up front. What has happened to the power that the backs so thrillingly built on? They hanker for Gethin Jenkins at prop and Ryan Jones in the back row, certainly. I am sure that Colin Charvis will return and amen to that, because in my eyes he is the big-match performer Wales need.

But this hope is tempered with the knowledge that the lock Brent Cockbain looks certain to be out with a hamstring injury and there is a paucity of quality replacements. Although the line-out was better than the previous weekend, Luke Charteris's display was not convincing, despite him being 6ft 9in and having bags of potential.

And therein lies Wales's biggest problem. I am sorry to bang on about it and use that old phrase "no strength in depth" again, but that really does apply here. The Welsh regions and Celtic League are still in an embryonic state and we are still waiting for the weight of top-class players to come through. In the meantime, take out a few forwards, Dwayne Peel and his little darting runs at scrum-half and the vital centre partnership and the Welsh suddenly have huge holes they struggle to fill. If Friday proved one thing, it is that Wales are not so good a team yet that they can play badly and still win comfortably. When they are good, they are very good, but when they are bad...

In my mind the two players missed most are Gavin Henson at 12 and Tom Shanklin at 13. They provide the cutting edge that was so obviously absent against Fiji. Without Henson breaking the gain line and Shanklin coming on those destructive angles of his, Wales simply tried to move the ball wide, which played directly into the visitors' hands.

The Fijians played a scramble, covering defence, and the way to hurt them was up the middle, as their inside defence was very lazy. Alas, Wales tried to go around them - not wise when your opponents are this quick.

The frustration also heightened whenever Wales tried to launch counterattacks. The Fijians haven't the most controlled of kicking games, but when the Welsh backs came to run it back they looked like startled rabbits. Perhaps their indecision was influenced by the big hits that were coming their way, but as a player I can tell you that if you are thinking about getting hurt, it usually follows. This was merely symptomatic of the lack of confidence married with the general rustiness currently running through Wales.

They will need to sort it, and quickly, before South Africa and Australia come calling. The performances will be as important as the result. Ruddock will be desperate for his troops to compete again and will be praying to have at least a couple of his front-liners back. Maybe then we will glimpse more of the Wales of spring and less of the Wales of autumn. Two very different sides.

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