What went wrong for Wales in the Women's Six Nations?

Scenes of Wales players storming a live post-match interview brought back memories of England’s Lionesses chanting “it’s coming home” when Sarina Wiegman was talking to the media at Euro 2022.

England had just beaten Germany to win a first major tournament and could be forgiven for their over-exuberance.

In contrast, Wales' rugby team were celebrating after finishing bottom of the Women’s Six Nations table and picking up the dreaded Wooden Spoon.

Still, they piled on head coach Ioan Cunningham live on television before dousing him in water.

As excessive as it may have seemed, the relief and raw emotion of getting back to winning ways could not be contained.

Wales’ 22-20 victory over Italy halted a seven-game losing streak and relieved some of the intense pressure the team and coaching staff had faced after what could have been the first Six Nations whitewash in their history.

But as the smoke and hangovers clear, they will be the first to admit this has not been a campaign to celebrate. The Italy win just papered over some worrying cracks.

This time last year the pitch in Parma was awash with smiles as Wales not only put a record number of points on Italy but cemented their best Six Nations finish since 2009.

To top it off Wales soared to sixth in the world and secured a place in the top tier of the new WXV competition.

With success came more investment. Things were looking rosy just two years out from the next Rugby World Cup.

But as we know in sport, particularly in Welsh rugby, with the highs ultimately come the lows. It was just few of us expected Wales' latest disappointments to be so soon.

So what has gone wrong? Have Wales gone backwards or have other teams improved?

Wales' professional journey

The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) handed out its first professional contracts to female players in 2022.

Arguably Wales only had one way to go at that point, having ended a two-year losing streak in the 2021 autumn series amid unrest on and off the pitch.

They finished the 2022 Six Nations in third with wins over Ireland and Scotland before the usual drubbings by England and France. They would have beaten Italy if not for a 79th-minute penalty, but there was progress for all to see.

Wales headed to the World Cup in New Zealand with high hopes, but would surely admit they underperformed with just one tournament win, against Scotland. Still they made the quarter-finals and lessons were learned.

It was the 2023 Six Nations where Wales really put down a marker and announced themselves as a force to be reckoned with.

They began with statement wins over Ireland and Scotland before defeats to England and France, but this time they ended their campaign with a record win over Italy. It was truly their 'we have arrived' moment.

Wales headed back to New Zealand for WXV1 with 32 professional players, but that trip proved a reality check as they were well beaten by Canada, Australia and their hosts.

Despite the whitewash, Wales were optimistic of finishing third again in this year’s Six Nations.

The opening game against Scotland was pivotal. Win there and they would have had momentum.

As it turned out they lost, with Lleucu George missing a last-minute conversion which would have salvaged a draw. Defeats by England, Ireland and France followed before Wales edged Italy in a dramatic finale.

So to address the regression or progression debate. If you look at results, Wales have gone backwards.

They won three games and scored 17 tries last year compared to one game and seven tries this year.

Performance-wise you could argue the same. Despite having a large Gloucester-Hartpury contingent in the squad, Wales simply have not clicked.

Their attack has been easily dealt with, line breaks have been few and far between and they have lacked composure in try-scoring situations.

Leadership has also been missing. Wales have lost some big players with the retirements of Siwan Lillicrap, Caryl Thomas, Elinor Snowsill and Sioned Harries in the last couple of years and nobody seems to have stepped up.

It cannot all come down to the captain Hannah Jones, who admittedly leads more through actions than words. There are plenty of older heads who could make their voices heard.

Scotland, Ireland and Italy have made strides since introducing professional contracts.

Scotland came into the Six Nations having won WXV2 and Ireland WXV3, albeit against weaker opposition. But the confidence those successes gave them was clear to see as both enjoyed flagship wins this campaign, notably Ireland’s 36-5 thrashing of Wales in Cork.

Jones wrote in her Contested column that perhaps Wales would have been better off not being in WXV1 last year.

“When you are winning you can focus more on your attack, because you are not defending all the time, which I think is an area we have struggled with in this campaign. Winning also gives you confidence to play with an edge to your game,” she said.

Wales will find out what it is like to play outside of WXV1 this year.

They will enter a play-off against Spain in June to determine whether they are in WXV2 or WXV3.

Qualification for next year’s Rugby World Cup depends on how they do in those tournaments.

Coping with criticism

This has been the first campaign where Wales have experienced the scrutiny that comes with being professional.

Jones admitted after the Ireland defeat that “greater exposure means more critique” and they are “still getting used to it”.

But fans wanting more is surely a sign of progress. Long gone are the days where players get pats on the back for giving it a good go.

Ex-Wales international Dyddgu Hywel and former Wales coach Chris Horsman were quick to call out Cunningham after he said he was pleased with the effort after defeat to France.

Hywel said that was “not acceptable” after a 40-0 loss.

“We need to raise the standards, we need to expect more from the coaching team and expect more from the players if we can compete against the likes of France and England,” she told BBC Radio Wales Sport.

Horsman said: "Have we invested this money, time and effort over two years to say we stuck at it? It should be beyond that.”

Let’s look at the positives, because there have been some.

Cunningham has long said Wales need more players, more strength in depth in certain positions, and he is building that.

He handed debuts to Sian Jones, Gwennan Hopkins, Mollie Reardon, Cath Richards and Mollie Wilkinson, while the likes of Alex Callender, Sisilia Tuipulotu and Gwenllian Pyrs have once lived up to their status as world-class players.

And George has to be credited for her resilience after missing the Scotland conversion. She had big boots to fill in following Snowsill, but her displays against France and Italy were arguably her best yet for Wales, and it was fitting she kicked the winning points on Saturday.

There should also be a mention for the fans who, despite Wales’ poor results, continue to come out in force.

This has not been lost on the players and the coaches, who have thanked supporters for sticking with them through tough times.

Wales ended their campaign in front of a record home crowd of 10,592 at the Principality.

The WRU has an ambition to fill the 74,500-seat stadium when England come to Cardiff in next year’s Six Nations. Reaching the point where Wales attract capacity crowds may take a little longer than hoped, but at least the ambition is there.

What next for Wales?

The first step towards getting back on an upward trajectory was winning again, which was achieved against Italy.

Most people fancy Wales' chances of beating Spain in the play-off and come autumn Cunningham's team will likely be playing against lower-ranked opposition and taking momentum into the 2025 Six Nations.

Longer term, Wales have to look at the development of talent.

For too long now, England’s Premiership Women’s Rugby (PWR) has been relied upon, with all but a handful of Wales’ current squad playing their rugby in that division.

There have been suggestions about Wales entering their own team in the competition, an idea captain Jones is in favour of.

It would give players “regular access to the best league in the world", she argues.

Wales have reinstated age-grade pathways at under-18 and under-20 level and the Celtic Challenge has gone some way towards bridging the gap to Test rugby.

Wales, Ireland and Scotland all entered two teams this year, but ultimately it is just a six-week competition before the Six Nations kicks off.

Cunningham hit the nail on the head when he talked about the need for a more competitive domestic league in Wales.

The current Welsh leagues are struggling, games are being cancelled as often as they are played and the level is nowhere near what it is in England.

“We've reached a point now where there is so much good talent coming through in Wales and we've got nowhere for them to play, and that is something that we've got to seriously look at,” Cunningham said.

No doubt that will form part of Wales’ review in the coming weeks, and the big decisions will come down to the likes of WRU executive director of rugby Nigel Walker, the man credited with kickstarting Wales’ professional journey when he joined the union.

But with Wales finishing bottom of the Six Nations, now is the time to kick on.