A feature of Wales in the 20 years before the arrival of Warren Gatland as head coach at the end of 2007 was that when they managed to reach the top they had such a bad bout of vertigo that they did not hang around to take in the view for very long. Failure followed success and after the grand slam was snatched from their grasp at the very end in Paris on Saturday night, two other years when they stumbled at the final hurdle came to mind.
Wales faced France in Cardiff in the final match of the 1988 Five Nations having won an unlikely triple crown. They had finished fourth in the previous year’s tournament, and although they went on to finish third in the inaugural World Cup, they were crushed by New Zealand 49-6 in the semi-final and were not fancied to make an impact on the championship.
A back division featuring the likes of Jonathan Davies, Mark Ring, Bleddyn Bowen, Adrian Hadley and Ieuan Evans dazzled until they met France on a rainy day and lost by a point. A first triple crown for nine years was still celebrated, but then came a sobering tour to New Zealand and the call of rugby league: they won only one match in the next three Five Nations and failed to qualify for the knockout stage of the 1991 World Cup despite having home advantage in their group.
In 1994, they went to Twickenham on the final weekend seeking the grand slam. It was the first year that the system of separating teams through points difference was applied and England needed to win by 16 to take the title. They did so by only seven leaving Wales, who finished bottom the year before, with the trophy. It was all they had to celebrate for a while as they won only twice in the next three championships and failed to get beyond the group stage in the 1995 World Cup.
It was only after the arrival of Gatland that Wales started to sustain success in the manner they had in the 1970s with three grand slams and a title in the ensuing 11 years. They reached two World Cup semi-finals, losing both narrowly, and forged such a strong identity that when Wayne Pivac took over last year and encouraged players to take more risks, they became more vulnerable defensively and endured their worst Six Nations campaign since the one before Gatland’s arrival.
Wales have to wait until Friday night before they know whether they can call themselves champions or runners-up, but wherever they finish the question is whether they build on a season that started with a generous dollop of fortune and finished with them going toe-to-toe with the team regarded as the best in Europe and outplaying them for periods, plucky rather than lucky. As against France in Cardiff last year, claims for a penalty try were denied and Louis Rees-Zammit was a dab of paint away from what would surely have been a match-winning try.
“I have played the game long enough to know that things can change from week to week,” said the Wales captain, Alun Wyn Jones, who has been the bridge between the Gatland and Pivac regimes. “There is always something to learn.” As long as he remains leading the side, and he has yet to sign an extension to his contract that ends in June, Wales are unlikely to relapse into bad old ways and last year will be seen as one of transition.
Pivac has a dual selection policy: using the summer and autumn windows to look at players coming through and abandoning experimentation come the Six Nations, even against Italy. Wales were leading by 10 points when he took off three of his thirtysomethings with 12 minutes to go against France. Dan Biggar, Ken Owens and Jonathan Davies are stalwarts of the Gatland era, all on the trail of 100 caps, but will they be involved in the 2023 World Cup?
As some of their more experienced brethren watched from the bench, Wales lost their discipline, players and then the match. “We did not quite get across the line,” said Pivac and if this championship is not to be a one-off for Wales, he needs his veterans to stagger their retirements, not virtually all go at once as happened at the end of the 1970s when boom turned to bust.
Wales have been replaced in fifth position by England, who also finished there in 2018. At the end of the following year, they were appearing in a World Cup final. Pivac faced calls for his head last year, now it is the turn of Eddie Jones. Building for the future is difficult in a world lacking shade. One lesson Wales learned in the 1980s and 1990s was that sacking coaches was usually counterproductive. Nothing succeeds like stability.