WARREN Gatland’s absences have been a major contributory factor to Wales’ miserable seven-game losing streak, according to 2008 Grand Slam winner Rhys Thomas.

Ex-Newport Gwent Drag-ons favourite Thomas also believes the decision to take the players to their Spala boot camp in Poland before the autumn series whitewash was “braindead”.

But the retired tighthead prop is backing Rob Howley’s Wales to halt their slide with a victory over Ireland on Saturday.

Despite a number of injuries, he believes the caretaker boss still has one of the country’s most talented squads of recent years at his disposal.

It is a game they simply must win – victory sees their Six Nations off to a flyer while defeat raises the spectre of a possible wooden spoon.

Wales have been in free-fall since the golden days of March’s Grand Slam triumph against near World Cup winners France in Cardiff.

They did narrowly beat the Barbarians in a meaningless ‘Test’ match in June but since then they have lost seven on the bounce.

The first three were on their summer tour of Australia when Wales were without head coach Gatland who broke both his heels in a fall at his New Zealand holiday home in April.

The former All Blacks hooker didn’t return to his full-time duties until late November, by which time Wales had already been embarrassed at home by Argentina and Samoa before losing to New Zealand and the Wallabies again.

And Gatland is unable to coach during the Six Nations because of his appointment as Lions head coach for their Australia tour this summer.

In Thomas’ opinion Wales have suffered because of the disruption.

“We’ve got the most talented squad of players Wales has had in recent history so it’s hard to put your finger on why they’ve lost their last seven,” he said.

“They’ve got a system where Warren comes and goes and I don’t think it’s working.

“If you are trying to pick a reason why we are not consistent, maybe we don’t have a consistent coaching set-up, because there’s nothing wrong with the squad.”

Thomas, who won seven caps for Wales between 2007 and 2009, added: “With a team like that, we should be winning on a regular basis.

“I wouldn’t say the coaches without Warren aren’t good enough, but it just breeds a little inconsistency.”

He thinks the decision not to go on one of their famed Poland boot camps before the Six Nations was made because the last one backfired so spectacularly.

“It was a ridiculous decision for them to go to Poland pre-autumn,” Thomas said.

“I think that was absolutely shocking player management mid-season to go and do fitness before the autumn Tests.

“It was totally braindead. But I think they’ve learned from their ways this year.”

Thomas, who retired from the game last April after he nearly died from a heart attack while training with his region the Scarlets a year ago, believes Wales will win this weekend.

“It’s going to be a hard year with all the blues away, France, Italy and Scotland, but I think it’s all about our first game,” he said.

“The Six Nations is all about momentum and we need to get out of the blocks against Ireland.

“There’s a lot being said about the injuries, but I think we’ve just got to get on with it.

“We’ve got a good enough team on the day to win at home and if we beat Ireland, you never know what could happen.

“But if we lose to them it could be horrific and we could end up in the bottom three. It’s all about Ireland.”