The One Million Pound Question
Updated: Mar 22
How one moment in the Welsh defeat to Italy may prove to have cost a lot more than it first seemed
Sometimes in sport, one person’s decision can be quite costly. Earlier this month auction house Lelands sold an American Football for $518,628 (£393,991). Somewhat pricey for a ball, but this ball was special; the ball was used by NFL legend Tom Brady to throw the final touchdown pass of his illustrious career. At least that was true when the gavel fell on the final bid. Just one day later, Brady announced his decision to continue his career against the odds and in the face of speculation. Barring something extreme, the ball’s outstanding place in the history books is unlikely to remain for long.
On Saturday it was the decision of Irish referee Andrew Brace that has hit the Welsh Rugby Union in the pocket for an amount the eclipses the cash handed over for the pigskin. With the game firmly in the balance against Italy, Welsh loosehead Wyn Jones barrelled over from close range and Brace referred the decision to his TMO. In theory Joy Neville would have the final say, but the man in the middle’s on field decision not to award the try, effectively ended the notion. With camera angles unable to provide definitive proof, the try never was and - more than giving Wales a handy lead, late in proceedings - the bonus point try drifted out of the grasp of Welsh hands.
Seemingly, Wales went into the final day with little to play for. Defeats on the road in Dublin and Twickenham and a narrow loss to France in Cardiff meant the closest they would come to lifting silverware would be at their post match meal. However, a bonus point victory would have propelled them up the table. Scotland and England losing on the final would have meant Wales leapfrogging both instead of languishing in fifth place, uncomfortably close to where dining implements become wooden. And though third place is hardly a merit to write home about, it does strengthen the balance sheets somewhat.
The Six Nations prize money operates on a sliding scale. Whilst the team propping up the table receive £1m, those at the top stand to pocket five times that amount, plus an extra £1m if they pull off a Grand Slam. Wales will get £1.5m for their final position, but had the try been award Wales would have collected £2.5m instead. Not an amount to ever be sniffed at, but especially in this unprecedented times. Unions have had to operate through a pandemic, trying to turn over profits without a single booted cut jean covered bum on seats. When Brace referred the try, it literally became the million pound question.
Plenty will question whether that money is being used wisely anyway, Whether luxurious hotels are the call of the day when regions remain underfunded and the game’s grassroots beg to be nurtured. However, as crowds dwindle and calls for the drop in ticket price and limitations on alcohol grow ever louder; every penny that finds its way to the union is vital.
““This was simply not good enough. We have said in the huddle it’s probably the last chance for a lot of players” - Dan Biggar
Finances aside, we still don’t know the cost to head coach Wayne Pivac. Even before his team had succumb to the Azzurri, the Kiwi coach had stood on the edge of a precipice. The former Scarlets coach has not been able to win over large swathes of fans as of yet. Not even delivering a Six Nations title just a year ago - and only seconds away from a Grand Slam - was enough to silence his critics. The first defeat to Italy on the green grass of home has left Pivac’s head firmly on the block and with the executioner’s axe sharper than ever and the World Cup 18 short months away. Ultimately, the cost to him may be his job. This Wales team has become used to challenging for Grand Slams and edging towards the Webb Ellis Trophy. Defeats to Italy are even less acceptable than they ever were.
What we can be sure of, is the cost to some of the men in the jersey should Pivac’s reign continue. Wales captain Dan Biggar pulled no punches when questioned by Sonja McLaughlan. “Simply not good enough” was the verdict of the Northampton fly half before delivering the line that will have plenty of his teammates wondering what lies ahead for them.
“It’s probably last chance for a lot of players,” said the ex-Ospreys ten in a moment of brutal honesty rarely exhibited in post match interviews. Speculation will fly about just who those players are. Pivac’s perpetual tinkering means there are plenty of players to pick from. Players and partnerships are changed like tides in an effort to pin down the 33 men who will lead Wales to the World Cup in France.
A line in the sand
Speculation as to whether talismanic lock Alun Wyn Jones will be amongst them would have been inconceivable not too long ago, but as rugby’s greatest showpiece draws closer, any certainty begins to slide away. The second row will be 38 then and with Will Rowlands taking strides forward on the international scene - and plenty of young pretenders to the crown - it maybe the first time in many years that the thought of a Wales team without Alun Wyn is a realistic one. His thoughts are as clear as those of Biggar, with the pair not only sharing the field many times for region and country, but also a penchant for speaking candidly.
“I’m sure he is going to draw a line in the sand moving forward and select a squad he is going to build on for the World Cup” in an interview that reads as much like a prediction of his coaches map to the World Cup as it does thinly veiled advice from a man who has done this many times in the past. A man whose experience in such things, may indeed prove to be priceless.