The reaction in Wales to defeat in Dublin has been as unrelentingly doom-laden as the weather. Black-cloud midfield mournfulness at the loss of Scott Williams and the continuing unavailability of Jonathan Davies have coincided with gale-force lashes to the half-back hides of Mike Phillips and Rhys Priestland. Camp Gatland, the training facility in the Vale of Glamorgan a few miles west of Cardiff, was built as a haven from the bleaker elements of the Welsh sporting experience but its mighty perimeter walls have taken a pounding.
The trouble with storms so broad-fronted is that they lay waste to everything. It may well be difficult to find a partner for Jamie Roberts in the centre and it is true that Phillips was (again) caught in possession and Priestland at times wore the look of a fly-half seized by doubt, but the problem lay in numbers smaller than 9. That is 1 to 8, the forwards.
Adam Jones, a tighthead model of candour, lifted his burly frame above the parapet in the week and said (to paraphrase): “We had a good old-fashioned hammering up front. What went wrong will be put right.”
The real damage to the defending champions was inflicted at the line-out. There were regular steals on the Welsh throw and horrible sliding retreats before the driving mauls that followed safe catches on the Irish. Ireland’s lineout set up everything else: the precise kicking game of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton; green control, verging on the absolute, of the breakdown area.
Now, building a defence against a rolling maul is a technical exercise, a matter of finding the right blend of collective response and the infiltration of individuals into the gathering swarm, disturbing its compactness. This is what pouring money into elite facilities is all about – identification of all possible threats, repetition ad nauseam of all responses. Nothing should come as a nasty surprise. Camp Gatland exists to lift Wales to preparedness on all fronts.
Last summer Camp Gatland left the haven of the Vale and became the peripatetic Lions workshop around Australia. No doubt the coach and his Welsh players took care not to reveal all their mysteries but the best players from three other countries still had an extended insight into the ways – into the heads – of the Six Nations champions of the past two years.
It is hardly surprising that somebody as attentive to detail as the Ireland coach, Joe Schmidt, should have revelled in sifting the impressions of his Irish Lions until he found a point of weakness. Ireland out-prepared Wales.
France come next for the battered Welsh. Their coach, Philippe Saint-André, as a former coach of Gloucester and Sale, understands the place of the Lions in the hearts of English-speaking rugby players, but he has enough on his plate trying to manage his quintessentially French troupe that he will probably not have time to pour over the spilt secrets of Camp Gatland.
France, like Wales, have beaten Italy. Wales were off-colour in their victory. France, thanks to a breezy 10 minutes after half-time, scored three tries, secured the result and Wesley Fofana became the wonder of the championship, in precisely one of the places where Wales are ill at ease, the centre. Add all that to the opening victory over England, the only other team in the Six Nations that the French treat with anything approaching respect, and it would appear that, if they can stretch their attention span to, say, a quarter of an hour, all will be well and they will remain on course for the title. If they can be bothered to know anything about the Lions, it is that in the seasons that follow a tour, they, the French, win the Six Nations.
There are few obstacles in the way of French reason. Last year Wales used France as a first stepping stone to recovery. Victory in Paris led to a second consecutive title. The year before, Wales used France as the finishing touch to their grand slam.
France do not have the driving maul of Ireland to hurt Wales. Their scrummage, so long feared, came off second best to Italy. They like the handling skills of Dimitri Szarzewski at hooker, but he lacks the set-piece technical proficiency of Benjamin Kayser. For 60 minutes against England they looked pretty ordinary everywhere. And the joy that came with the two victories may have been dampened by the return of some of their number to club colours this weekend. The Top 14 clubs and the Fédération Française de Rugby are still squabbling over access to players.
At some stage on Friday night under the closed roof of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Fofana and Louis Picamoles will start or finish moves that threaten to blow their opponents away. It always happens and is wonderful to watch. Perhaps it will be a night for Brice Dulin at full-back to display his daring as a counter-attacker.
But will 10, 15 or even 20 minutes of enlightenment be enough? Wales are in Camp Gatland, where it is unlikely the coach will yield to the mournful wind and make changes. Phillips has a history of excelling against France. Jamie Roberts, whoever plays alongside him, can halt Mathieu Bastareaud and cut down Fofana.
Such players’ numbers are, however, too high to be of primary importance. You do not need the tools of elite preparation to penetrate to the heart of the matter. Forwards, those between Nos1 and 8, need simple reminders of what they suffered in Dublin. And an even simpler instruction: “Put it right.” Adam Jones has promised. And in Adam, doom-laden Wales must still trust.