Former international referee Nigel Owens has told William Hill that Wales are as low as they have been for a number of years following Saturday’s shock defeat to Italy, and based on current form, they will struggle to reach the knockout stages of next year’s World Cup.
Wales ended up finishing fifth in this year’s Six Nations following their 22-21 loss to Italy in Cardiff, and Owens believes they have got a lot of work to do before the 2023 World Cup comes around.
“This is as low as Wales have been for a number of years,” the Welshman told William Hill. “They’d never lost to Italy in Cardiff before. They’ve had some low times in the past, which every team goes through, but losing at home to Italy is something that’s never happened before. It’s pretty low.
“They’ve got to go to South Africa in the summer, hopefully they’ll have a few players coming back from injury, and a couple of other players might start the game. They really need to sort out who the best team is going to be and start getting some wins and getting confidence back going into the World Cup. There’s no hiding the fact it was very disappointing at the weekend.”
Owens added: “They’re going to have to improve on where they are now, or they’re not going to make the knockout stages of the World Cup, simple as that, based on current form. There’s been a lot of changes, not sticking with the same team. But to be to fair to Wayne Pivac, it’s understandable as some players aren’t on their best form, so you need to bring people in. They haven’t got a player that stands out in a few of the particular positions and are not on top of their game at the moment. They’ll need these players to get back into form.
“There’s the summer tour to South Africa, which is going to be a massive ask, and the Autumn Internationals. You need those two windows to start getting some wins and knowing who your best team is going to be heading into next year’s Six Nations with some form. Otherwise, it will be a very tough ask going into the World Cup.”
While Owens accepts Wales had a very disappointing Six Nations campaign, there are some positives to be taken from the tournament.
“Wales were poor against Italy, they really were,” Owens said. “I wasn’t expecting that. I know they started the tournament very poor against Ireland, and they finished it even worse. But against Scotland they played really well. I think they could and should have beaten England, another five minutes in that game and I think they would have. If they’d scored that try, they would have beaten France in Cardiff. Wales did play really well in those games.
“I thought they were improving as the tournament was going on, but Saturday was a shock. They went backwards and I don’t know why. Nobody knows why. The players and coaches will be scratching their heads too. Whether they were too confident, thinking Italy were going to be a foregone conclusion? I don’t know. But Italy played well. As a Welshman, I was gutted Wales lost, but I don’t begrudge Italy the win – the way they played, the try they scored. Wales were very disappointing but all credit to Italy, that’s the best they’ve played for a long, long time.”
Owens also went on to say that Italy’s win against Wales proves that they deserve their place in the Six Nations, despite some calling for them to be replaced.
“Italy showed with that win they belong in the Six Nations,” Owens said. “I’ve been supporting Italy and saying that Georgia and the others are not good enough to replace Italy. Italy have struggled in recent years, of course they have, but Georgia are not better than them. If you look in recent years, Benetton have been playing some great rugby, and that was Kieran Crowley coaching them. And he seems now to have got the Italian players for Italy playing like Benetton were playing, as we saw on the weekend.
“I hope those calling for Italy to be chucked out of the Six Nations are feeling a bit embarrassed now. And what happens next year if Wales finish with the wooden spoon? They were only a few points ahead of Italy this year. What happens then if you’re talking about the bottom side being relegated? The Six Nations is special and needs to stay the way that it is. The weekend has put that argument to bed.”