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Williams column: Ability of new caps offers Wales reasons to be cheerful after below-par 2017

By Shane Williams

IF I had to give Wales a mark out of 10 for 2017, it would be a six – and that’s probably generous. Christmas is a time for reflection and when I look back on the last 12 months, you’d have to say our international rugby has been at best bang average and at worse, highly underwhelming.

To begin with, fifth place in the Six Nations simply wasn’t good enough. The Autumn series was a bit better and at least we have seen Wales try something different, expand their style and change the way they play.

That was something I was really pleased to see and it was about time, but the brutal truth is Wales are not at the races in terms of the way modern-day rugby is going, not at the moment at least.

That’s hard for me to say and let me point out I think Wales certainly can catch up with the other Northern Hemisphere nations. But when you’re behind the eight-ball, you have to do the chasing and that’s hard. The way today’s game is moving, it’s better to be out in front.

Wales should have made changes to their gameplan last autumn, rather than the one just finished, which leaves the side going into 2018 very much with a point to prove.

I know Warren Gatland will say Wales first started to look at a wider, more expansive game when they were in New Zealand in 2016, but I also know that deep down he and the rest of the coaches won’t be happy with last year. Warren was on Lions duty for most of last season and he’ll be targeting much better than the return of just two Six Nations wins over Ireland and Italy.

Wales have the players to do exactly that because there were certainly some positives to take from 2017. The Lions and their series draw in New Zealand was one of them. It was an outstanding achievement and at the heart of it was a number of Welshmen. I can’t look back on the Lions without mentioning Jonathan Davies. What a series he had, what a player he is, and what a miss he’ll be in the rest of the season ahead.

The star of New Zealand: Scarlets centre Jonathan Davies was a stand-out player on the British & Irish Lions on tour against the All Blacks (photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

Jon was on a different level against the All Blacks, while Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton were also producing performances of the highest standard. These are players who are among the best in their position in the world.

We have the talent to be a very good team and now with Warren back on board full time, the challenge is to fine tune that and gel the established players with new guys such as Steffan Evans and Josh Navidi to push for the next level.

I was really impressed by Josh in the November Tests and his performances showed that in the regional game, Wales do have players who can step up and succeed at the next level. Ken Owens was another player like that and he’s now one of the first names on the team sheet for Warren.

Away from the national side, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Scarlets. Since the dawn of regional rugby the Ospreys have been leading the way and it was fantastic to see the men from Llanelli tear up the script, play some incredible rugby along the way and then back that up with silverware in the last ever PRO12. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen Welsh sides turn on the style but when push comes to shove, it’s been a case of close but no cigar in terms of actual success.

For the Scarlets, it was different and that was a huge, huge moment.

If anything, when the pressure came on for Wayne Pivac’s side, they seemed to relish it and play even better which was so refreshing to see and a real highlight of 2017.

Both the Lions and Scarlets showed Welsh rugby players hitting the heights on the biggest of stages, more of that in 2018, please.

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