Under-fire Wales out to spring a surprise
IT didn't make News at Ten, but one snippet of information this week truly underlined the extent of Wales's decline at Test level over the past 12 months — they are now closer to Canada in the IRB world rankings than they are to England.
They are closer to Georgia in those same ratings than they are to New Zealand.
Yet in last Saturday's match-day programme for the game with Ireland, the Welsh Rugby Union were still banging on about the days of wine and roses the game here has enjoyed in the Six Nations era.
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"Welsh rugby has enjoyed a golden era since the turn of the century," opined union chairman David Pickering.
Tell that to the Georgians.
Wales are 10.68 IRB ranking points ahead of them and 12.81 behind the All Blacks.
They are 5.86 points in front of Canada and 6.63 adrift of England.
Not so long ago the Welsh coaching team had designs on their side breaking into the top four in the IRB listings. But 11 months without a Test win has left such hopes looking as emaciated as Richard III after his long-stay stint in that Leicester car park.
And there is no guarantee that Rob Howley's side will improve their 10th position any time soon, with France to play in Paris tomorrow, followed by a date with a revitalised Italy in Rome later this month and an encounter against Scotland at Murrayfield two weeks later.
Howley has turned to the Ospreys in an attempt to prevent a drama turning into a crisis. Three changes, one of them enforced, give his side a more cohesive look for the trip to the French capital.
Ryan Jones comes in as captain, with Sam Warburton injured, while Richard Hibbard and Justin Tipuric are summoned as Wales's acting head coach looks to stop eight defeats in a row becoming nine, one shy of the national team's worst ever run.
In all there are five Ospreys up front, which is hard to argue with too much given that the Pro12 champions have boasted the strongest forward unit in the country by some distance this season.
It is fair to say popular demand has helped propel Tipuric in at No. 7, notwithstanding Howley's insistence that Warburton would have started and been captain had he not been ruled out by a stinger picked up against Ireland.
Presumably, the Blues man would have played at six with Tipuric at openside.
But Wales could be stronger for Ryan Jones's inclusion at blindside, with their back row looking to have more balance: at 6ft 5in and 17st 12lb, Jones will add extra weight and give the side a bigger ball-carrying presence.
Tipuric had to play.
Had he been overlooked again, you could have imagined questions being asked on the matter in the Welsh Assembly, petitions being drawn up and protest marches culminating in rallies outside Wales's base in the Vale of Glamorgan.
That said, it would be unfair to see the young Ospreys flanker as a miracle worker capable of reversing climate change, finding a solution to the common cold and easing political tensions in North Africa.
But he is a serious player and if Wales give him a decent platform he will make an impact.
He is also better in defence than he is given credit for.
Warburton is a sound tackler, but Tipuric doesn't exactly shirk putting in the hits, either: in consecutive games against Toulouse, twice, and the Scarlets in December he totalled 49 tackles: more than 16 a match.
He is no lightweight and France captain Thierry Dusautoir will respect him, having watched from the sidelines when he achieved four turnovers in the Ospreys' 30-14 defeat by Toulouse at Stade Ernest Wallon.
Hibbard will add bravery, power-tackling and strong ball-carrying to the forward effort.
Yesterday was a novel experience for him, a Wales press conference with him in a starting line-up. He was just down for broadcast interviews but he is old school and was happy to chat with anyone, a throwback to days when players trusted writers.
Like Tipuric, he can play a bit as well.
Indeed, not for nothing do the Ospreys rate him the best hooker in Europe. He is a tough nut who brings an edge to every pack he plays in and it is hard to fathom why Wales haven't picked him more often.
The killer stat is that Hibbard has started just five Tests out of 65 in the Gatland era. Tomorrow is his big chance to prove a point.
If Wales keep it simple at the line-out, there is no reason why the former Swansea player shouldn't prove a major success in Howley's reshaped pack.
It is also a big day for Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts, both of whom shipped criticism after the 30-22 defeat by Ireland. Mark Jones's admission that Davies "is not a natural passer" was a shade unsettling given that one of Davies's prime jobs is to get the ball out wide, where Wales have two potentially lethal wings in George North and Alex Cuthbert.
No-one is demanding that the big man sends out 30-metre passes coated with honey, but it shouldn't be asking too much for him or Roberts to keep the ball out of touch.
It is overdue generally for Wales to get their act together.
Attack coach Jones this week played down suggestions that Wales had become the new France, a team bedevilled by fluctuating form. He should have said he wished Wales could mirror the consistency of Les Bleus in the Six Nations era.
For France have won five Grand Slams since 2000 and finished out of the top three in the championship just once. Were there a French equivalent of David Pickering he would no doubt be waxing lyrical about a platinum or even diamond era Les Bleus are enjoying, and justifiably so.
Contrast that with Wales and their boom-and-bust tendencies over the past 13 years: three Grand Slams and every other season in the bottom half of the table. They have become the rollercoaster team of world rugby, soaring highs followed by deep lows that see multiple hands thrown up in the air.
Anyone doubting the size of the challenge facing Howley's team this weekend should remember that France put 88 points on Argentina in two meetings last year; they thrashed Australia 33-6; and they defeated Samoa. But their defeat by Italy will have jolted them.
Wales will need to start well and fuel Gallic doubts.
One success would kick-start the Howley era.
At home, France are favourites. But if Wales can produce an 80-minute performance that doesn't involve any prolonged slumbering, that doesn't involve slipshod backplay, that doesn't involve questionable defence — well, that would be something.
They are a far better side than the disjointed crew they looked in the first half last week.
If they attack the French, they may surprise themselves.