Gatland re-takes Wales reins
Cardiff - When Warren Gatland relinquished full-time coaching duties with Wales in the summer, his side had just won the Six Nations and were still feasting on their run to the World Cup semi-finals.
How things have changed.
The New Zealander retook the reins on Monday with Welsh rugby on its knees and the national team in crisis after five straight losses, most recently to Argentina and Samoa over successive weekends.
And it's set to get a whole lot tougher for Gatland and Wales, with New Zealand and Australia looming over the horizon to complete what is proving to be a chastening month of autumn internationals.
The latest IRB rankings, released on Monday, show just how far the Dragons have fallen - they are now No 8 and struggling to stay in the second band of seeds for the 2015 World Cup.
"It doesn't just go with a flick of the fingers," said Wales captain Sam Warburton, a star of the World Cup whose form has imploded along with many in the team. "It is still the same players - it's not as if it is a new squad or we've brought new guys in.
"I think the players are letting ourselves down."
Barry John, the great Wales flyhalf from the 1960s and '70s, summed up the mood in the small rugby-proud nation after the limp 26-19 loss to Samoa on Friday.
"Welsh rugby is in despair and disarray," he said in his Welsh newspaper column on Sunday.
"I can't remember anything as acute as the decline of this Welsh team in a matter of a few months... Desperate times brings desperate measures but there are none available."
Gatland had to briefly stand aside for the summer series in Australia as he recovered from breaking both heels in a fall
while cleaning windows at his beachhouse in New Zealand. Assistant coach Rob Howley took over as Wales lost the series 3-0 - although only by a combined margin of 11 points.
Howley stayed on in charge for the Argentina and Samoa matches while Gatland carried out business duties relating to his recent appointment as British & Irish Lions coach for the 2013 tour of Australia, but a 26-12 loss to the Pumas was followed by the defeat by the South Sea Islanders.
Gone is the dazzling back play that has so often characteris
ed Wales teams down the years. Injuries have hit the forwards - Adam Jones, Matthew Rees and Dan Lydiate have been missing this month, while Alun-Wyn Jones also is out now - but the pack made no impression against Argentina and Samoa, dominated at the breakdown in both matches.
"Over the last 12 months or so we have been to the World Cup semi-finals and won a Grand Slam," said Howley, a former Wales captain. "We have had the highs, and now we are going through a low."
So low that if Wales is likely to drop to No 9 in the rankings if Samoa can beat France on Saturday. That would mean the Welsh being third seeds when the pool draw for the 2015 World Cup is made on December 3.
It isn't just the national team that is in the doldrums, though.
Welsh regions are cash-strapped and have lost many of their top players to the lucrative French league. Jamie Roberts, arguably Wales' best player, is the latest star name to announce he would be leaving Welsh rugby, with Racing Metro in Paris his likely destination.
Cardiff, the Scarlets and the Ospreys are also unlikely to make it out of the groups in the Heineken Cup - rugby's equivalent of the Champions League in soccer - after winning just one of their combined six pool matches so far.
Of course, beating the All Blacks on Saturday would change everything - but that hasn't happened in 60 years, stretching back 24 matches.
"There is every chance we can win next Saturday, I definitely believe that," Warburton said. "You have to believe that in every game you go into, but whether people think that is realistic or not is up to them."
Gatland could at least celebrate some good news on the injury front on Monday, with centre Jonathan Davies and hooker Rees declared fit for the New Zealand game.