Wales lagging behind Six Nations rivals following an uneasy autumn

Time, perhaps, for the invocation of a few small mercies. Anything, so long as it inserts a little calm and perspective into the psychodrama which seems to afflict Wales along with every autumn programme.

Things could, and very often have been worse. Think back four years to the same point in the World Cup cycle, when Wales went into the autumn proclaiming top four ambitions, and wound up instead plunging into the third seeds. This time they've finished fifth. While that isn't proof against a gruesome Six Nations, it makes it likelier that Wales will be among the second seeds when the 2019 draw is made -- later than last time, but still ridiculously early, next May.

And when something has happened only three times in 110 years, it is not to be sniffed at. South Africa may be at what many reckon is an all-time low, but still had to be beaten. So too did Argentina and Japan. And while one would hope for Wales to beat both at home, neither is to be taken for granted.

There were fine individual performances, with the mild frustration that the best -- from Ross Moriarty and, particularly against South Africa, Justin Tipuric -- were in the back row, already richly served. Leigh Halfpenny re-integrated himself after a year's absence. And if there were continuing reminders of Sam Warburton's physical fragility and the loss of Rhys Webb, it has to be accepted that any rugby team at any time will have to cope with injured absentees.

And while four matches remains one too many, at least this year we are spared the spectacle of Welsh players being plunged straight back into European competition, with an inevitably deleterious effect on performances in the pivotal third and fourth weekends of the pool stage. This time, that is England's problem.

So why the angst? One reason was the hideous 32-8 mullering inflicted by Australia on the opening weekend, a humiliation on a scale which it seemed -- except perhaps for odd occasions against the All Blacks at their best -- was a thing of the past. It is one thing to be out-thought and narrowly defeated by Australia -- an all-too familiar script over the past few years -- but still more disappointing to be outplayed, including several cases of simple out-muscling, in pretty much every phase and for a 24-point defeat to, if anything, understate the gulf between the teams.

Anyone told that Saturday evening that Wales would win their remaining matches might have felt some relief. But there is little sense of that now, in part because of the nature of those victories.

One element is perhaps an underrating of Japan and Argentina. But another is that Wales' play was so dull, unimaginative and stereotypical. Nothing new about that, one might say. Wales have been dull, unimaginative and stereotypical for the last few years, but grateful for the results that power rugby has brought, particularly in the Six Nations. This, again, is nothing new -- Welsh antecedents of Warrenball include, arguably, the power-based 'Triple Crown Rugby' with which John Gwilliam's teams won Grand Slams in 1950 and 1952.

But one difference is that the Welsh public had been offered hints of something more varied and interesting over the last couple of years. The displacement of Alex Cuthbert by Liam Williams and Mike Phillips by Rhys Webb in the first choice starting line-up pointed Wales in a new direction, with power leavened by subtler footballing skills.

And there is clearly a desire to move on among the Welsh coaching staff. Wonderfully though Jamie Roberts has served Wales, the willingness to bench him against Argentina and South Africa also showed recognition that straight Warrenball will no longer serve.

At the same time such transitions are tough. Players must learn new habits and instincts, and to apply learning from the training field into pressurised match situations in front of large, demanding crowds. Mistakes of the sort seen against Japan are inevitable, and it becomes all too easy to retreat into older, safer modes and to cling on for instance to the selectorial comfort object represented by the experience and physical presence of the haplessly out-of-form Cuthbert.

One has to feel some sympathy for Robert Howley, in a position of responsibility without power. If he does well, Warren Gatland still returns in 2017 for another two years. But doing badly could trash his chances of the succession once and for all.

And we also might wonder if the academies are producing the right sort of player. There are gymrats aplenty, and those who are happy to be told what to do. But are they encouraging the sort of player on whom the most effective Welsh traditions have been founded -- the instinctive ball players who have the skills and imagination to play with their heads up, responding to match situations as well as to gameplans?

Sam Davies is that kind of player. But does the Wales management truly have the confidence of its apparent convictions? If it did, it would surely have given him rather more game time, if not so much of it at fullback, and in particular would have started him ahead of the safer but somewhat prosaic Gareth Anscombe against Japan.

Nor do the management always help themselves. Howley's comments about having to 'earn the right to offload' suggests a continuing subordination to structure. Of course Wales must get defensive and set-piece fundamentals right -- their absence was the most alarming aspect of the surrender to Australia -- but whether or not to offload is surely a matter of recognising and taking opportunities as they occur rather than any process of 'earning'.

And if the exciting Keelan Giles really is 'old enough if he's good enough', why was the opportunity not taken to give him a few minutes at some point ? A succession of tight finishes did not, admittedly, help. But giving anyone a debut at any time has an element of risk. Among Wales' previous teenage shooting stars Tom Prydie ultimately was not good enough, but George North was. The only way to find out was to give them game time. Not taking that calculated risk in the autumn means either forgetting him for the rest of the season, or taking it amid the far greater pressures of the Six Nations.

And that of course is the final element in the Welsh mood, a sense of lagging behind the progress apparently being made by the other five. We can see the power, the confidence and the strength in depth, of England. Ireland not only beat the All Blacks, but seem to be unearthing a fresh generation of backs with the heads-up, close-to-the-line quality that Wales wants but somehow lacks. France might, with a little more composure, have beaten the All Blacks, Italy beat the Boks -- whatever their quality, a huge psychological breakthrough for the Italians -- and the Scots are now sourcing dynamic centres with extremely Welsh names.

A mood of unease is better, one supposes, than depression or outright panic, both of which have gripped Wales during past autumn programmes. But it is hardly an uplifting frame of mind with which to confront the Six Nations. Mercies come little smaller.