Where does Welsh rugby go from here? It has been a common question of late and it is relevant again after another disastrous week.
Sport in Wales made headlines for the wrong reasons with the national team threatening to attack England over contract issues.
Such drastic action was avoided but, given the preparation, Warren Gatland’s men were perhaps predictably outclassed in a 20-10 loss against Steve Borthwick’s side.
As Wales prop up the Six Nations table, we wonder how they got to this point.
More importantly, what is the way out of this latest and perhaps most damaging crisis in Welsh rugby?
Facts and figures sometimes don’t tell the story. In this situation, however, they do.
Let’s lay out some damning statistics from Welsh rugby.
England’s defeat was their 12th in 15 matches, a run dating back to the Wayne Pivac era.
It was their third consecutive Six Nations defeat, making Wales their worst start to the tournament since 2007.
Wales have not been whitewashed since Steve Hansen’s class of 2003 suffered that fate, but now a repeat is a realistic prospect.
Wales travel to play Italy in Rome for the potential Wooden Spoon decider on March 11 before facing France in Paris seven days later.
England emulated Ireland by posting their biggest margin of victory against Wales since 2003, while Scotland compiled a record 35-7 victory in the Murrayfield match.
This is also the first year Wales have not won a Six Nations game at home during a tournament since 2003.
Wales have now slipped to 10th in the world rankings after previously holding this position in 2007 and 2013.
Next month they could fall out of the top 10 for the first time. Grim read across the board.
In Gatland’s first stint in charge, between 2007 and 2019, you could generally tell how he looked and represented his side.
There wasn’t always the success that people remember selectively, but you knew that the approximate staff that was choosing reinvented several sides.
Judging by his three selections since returning, Gatland is searching for his strongest side, or perhaps more importantly, the team he wants to field in the World Cup opener against Fiji in September.
What we’ve witnessed is a mix, as Gatland balances 30-plus likes Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, George North, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny with 20-somethings Christ Tshiunza, Dafydd Jenkins , Tommy Refell, Jac Morgan, Joe Hawkins and Mason Grady. Not much in the intermediate age range.
Five changes from Ireland to Scotland and nine more changes for the England fixture show that Gatland is still searching for its first-choice line-up.
His post-match comments after England suggest he will look for cohesion and continuity rather than experimentation against Italy.
The identity crisis is not limited to playing staff, with coaching appointments also under scrutiny.
Familiar figures Rob Howley, whose re-election was blocked by the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) board of directors, and Shaun Edwards are no longer with Gatland.
He brought in a new defense coach in Mike Forshaw, a man he had never met before, with Wales conceding 12 tries in three games.
Under new attacking coach Alex King, Wales have managed just three tries in three games, including an interception effort and a scoring from a rolling maul.
Playstyle and tactics are also under scrutiny. The old term ‘Warrenball’, used to describe the Welsh style of play in Gatland’s first reign, used to irritate the New Zealander, but it was based on great runners like Jamie Roberts crossing the winning line, with the game-plan of development from there.
Wales’ kicking tactics against England, where they regularly gave full-back Freddie Steward possession, have come under scrutiny.
The tactics seemed wrong and the impossibility of changing them in the field worrisome.
Return to Gatland
It was always going to be a gamble for Gatland when he decided to return to Wales for a second time, replacing his compatriot Pivac in December 2022.
Gatland’s status was secured following his initial 12-year spell in Wales, which included three Grand Slams, four Six Nations titles and two World Cup semi-final appearances.
Welsh rugby was in disarray when Gatland returned late last year and hasn’t improved since.
He has now lost three straight Six Nations matches for the first time as Wales manager and faces the barrel of a covert tournament.
Borthwick followed Ireland boss Andy Farrell and Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend to get the best of his former British and Irish Lions boss.
So despite all his trophies and the success of the Lions, Gatland is in trouble.
Reviving this struggling Wales team ahead of the World Cup later this year would perhaps mark their crowning achievement.
Gatland has repeatedly stated that he believes he can transform the team with the couple of months he has with them before the world tournament. He sure there will be a lot of work to do.
England’s defeat was perhaps inevitable given the complicated preparation, with concessions made by both sides to ensure the match went ahead.
Significant long-term issues remain around professional gaming in Wales and the future of its regional players.
The offer of player contracts has been frozen, with uncertainty about the long-term future of the players, as more than 70 find themselves without deals beyond this season.
Negotiations have been ongoing with Cardiff, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets over a new six-year funding framework, with the regions receiving official documentation last week.
The Welsh players have been told they will be offered new deals next week, and WRU interim chief executive Nigel Walker has said he will. keep the “feet to the fire” of the four regions if that doesn’t happen.
Ken Owens is one of the few figures to emerge with credit from Welsh rugby’s latest sorry saga, as the captain proved instrumental in the players’ negotiations.
Owens spoke of everyone working together to ensure that Welsh rugby does not become a laughing stock again.
It remains to be seen whether Walker’s comments, made in front of millions of people on national television on Saturday, will antagonize the contentious relationship between the WRU and the regions.
Walker has proven to be a beacon of contrition since taking over his interim role following the resignation of Steve Phillips.
He apologized to the players and former WRU employees who accused the governing body of having a toxic and sexist culture, claims that are being investigated by an independent task force.
Walker will require that diplomatic approach once again with the small matter of an extraordinary general meeting to be held on March 26, in which a major change of government will be on the agenda.
The last facelift of the Welsh Six Nations was followed by the regional rugby revolution. Whether a similar seismic shift occurs in the domestic game anytime soon remains to be seen.
Before all that, Wales desperately need to claim a win from somewhere, but the form suggests Italy will be favorites at the Stadio Olimpico.
They brought Ireland and France close in Rome but would always have aimed for visiting Wales in their quest for a first Six Nations home win since 2013.
Memories will be fresh for both sides of last year’s meeting in Cardiff, when Italy broke their seven-year, 36-match losing streak in the Six Nations with a shock late victory.
Wales suffered defeats in the Italian capital in 2003 and 2007 and there are similarities between those campaigns and this one.
Gatland will be determined to ensure the Welsh’s list of defeats in Rome does not extend into next month.
If he fails in that quest, then where, you wonder, would Welsh rugby go from there?