One more step along the road they go – off field distractions were put aside as Wales ground out a win at Murrayfield last week, their 13th on the spin, which sets them up with a chance to take the Six Nations title, triple crown and of course the coveted Grand Slam (remember Gatland’s prediction before the first game?); as they host Ireland in Cardiff on Super Saturday. The match is set to be Wales’ biggest since they last took the title in 2013 and head coach Warren Gatland will certainly hope that there are bigger yet to come in 2019 as the rugby World moves inexorably towards this year’s World Cup in Japan. Only a handful of this current Wales crop have tasted tournament success on the international stage – so this could be an important marker in their year.
If they are able to extend their winning streak on Saturday the men in red will write themselves into the history books – they certainly won’t be the best team (Welsh or otherwise) to have ever won a Grand Slam, but it could be argued that this may well be one of the best Grand Slams won… At its outset, the competition was labelled as one of the most competitive in memory and whilst three nations can take the crown heading into round five, it is only Wales, who, longer under the radar, can claim a clean sweep. They may not have set the World alight (they are currently level on tries scored with winless Italy), but they are able to find a way to get the job done, regardless of how it comes about – they just don’t know how to lose at the moment, which is in complete contrast to domestic form. They may not have the greatest players, but they have one of the World’s greatest coaches; Warren Gatland has built a togetherness and spirit that has turned them into a great team. There are arguably players in this set-up, who may not have had the same opportunities for other nations, players like Adams, Anscombe and Francis are now among the first on the team sheet. Finally giving Wales some true strength in depth that was ultimately their downfall in 2015.
Gatland has himself come out and said publicly that Wales got lucky and they took their eye off the ball against the Scots, the bigger prize was appearing on the horizon and it wouldn’t be the first time that ‘semi-final syndrome’ has affected a performance. But with that hurdle cleared, Wales can now concentrate on the big one in Cardiff – a city where they have never failed to cement a slam, currently 9 from 9. There was so much written in the build up to the England fixture and the intense rivalry that it brought. However, for those embedded within the Welsh game – the Ireland fixture is bigger. Recent history between the nations has given it real bite, add in to the mix the 2018 that Ireland had and it will surely be no different this time. Expect the home fans to create a white-hot atmosphere with so much on the line for both teams. It has all the makings of a classic test-match; not necessarily free-flowing, but intense, physical and attractional. Joe Schmidt has built his Ireland team on an intensity and patience that, until recently, few are able to match and they are definitely no strangers to keeping possession for a long time. They surely have a big performance in them? Shaun Edwards, however, has built a defence that will back itself to deal with this threat – it is fast becoming the best in World Rugby, just at the right time. Wales are no strangers to not having the ball, against Scotland, more than 140 tackles were made between the 30th and 80th minute and during this period they didn’t score until the final whistle. The fitness and heroism shown without the ball has become a defining feature that has helped to build their unbeaten run. “The red wall” is synonymous with Welsh football, but it is particularly apt for this crop of its rugby stars. Who would bet against seeing a repeat of that unforgettable 5-minute stand in their own 22 by the Welsh from this fixture in 2015?
Warren Gatland has a special relationship with the Six Nations and this is set to be his last (with Wales at least), he will desperately want his record with to finish up with 3 Grand Slams and one title in 12 attempts, and Wales’ 4th this century. History will record Warren Gatland as being a very effective, resourceful, clever and successful coach. His achievements with Wales, win or lose next week-end, have been extraordinary and regardless of the outcome on Saturday, Wales will head to Japan in a good place. They are proven performers with an extended preparation period and with players like Scott Williams and Toby Faletau to come back into the fold they will take on an added dimension moving forward. They will certainly be one of the favorites to take the World crown, but will their unique style be enough to get the job done? Only time will tell.
Written by – James Jones