There are always times as a writer of rugby when you love to get things right. There are even times when you can love to get things wrong. I wrote this paragraph the week before the 6 Nations began regarding the Wales v Ireland game:
“This match is also set to be one of the most decisive of the whole 6 Nations. Whichever side wins this will go on to do well. Momentum, form, confidence take from it what you will, a victory over one of your closest and fiercest rivals can make or break your tournament. If Wales win, they could end up with a great showdown in Cardiff against England on the final weekend, if they lose and with three away games on the bounce, that match against England all of a sudden takes on an uglier aspect”
Who could have predicted after the first weekend that Wales indeed would manage, after eight losses on the bounce, to go on and win three on the roadand to indeed, set up what was to be a spectacular show down in Cardiff? Who would have thought that Ireland, after a spectacular first 40 minutes, would go on to play so badly albeit not being aided by a severe injury crisis?
For Wales, this year’s tournament has almost been one of defying the odds. Blown away by Ireland first half they rallied in the second to give themselves a glimmer of hope.
Since the Autumn, it was Wales’ defence that had been letting them down, and away against France they started to put that right, starting the ball rolling on keeping a try clean sheet that was to last them the rest of the tournament. Despite the sneering from some areas in the press as to the quality of the match in France, no away win there can ever be sniffed at, and the resolve it instilled in the young Welsh side was to kick start their campaign properly.
More gritty wins on the road making it a total of five away wins in a row, a 6 Nations record for Wales, eventually saw them heading into the last weekend with a chance of winning the championship and retaining their title.
It was to be a side who hadn’t conceded a try in three games up against a side who had only managed to score one in three. England were there with the hopes of winning their first Grand Slam in 10 years. Wales were hoping to retain the tournament title for the first time since 1979.
What was to follow was possibly the best match in the tournament. Passion, skill, bruising hits, pace, aggression; it was a breathless game from start to finish. After what has to be one of the most incredibly renditions of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, Wales took to the field full of self-belief that they could win.
In the previous four rounds there had been the odd stand out players for Wales; Leigh Halfpenny, Ryan Jones, Ian Evans. In this showdown with England, every player from 1 to 15 stood up to be counted. Nearly everything went right for Wales, as they dismantled their opponents slowly at first, yet every time they had a chance of points they took them.
It turned into a record victory for Wales. It was by far their best performance in recent times against a top tier side. The score line is unarguable. That Wales managed to put in a performance of this magnitude after such a dismal Autumn and such a disastrous start to the tournament is testament to the resilience of this squad of players and the coaching staff.
Both Edwards and Howley had come in for criticism. It was deservedly so after some lacklustre and at times clueless displays yet the way in which they took the Welsh side back to basics and grafted out a game plan and tactics for Wales to succeed is something to applaud.
The players themselves, up against it at the start in terms of injury problems, grew together as a squad. With doubts to start with about the second row, Andrew Coombs stepped up the mark brilliantly. Dan Biggar, completely inexperienced in the 6 Nations, handled the fly half shirt with great maturity, with only one big mistake across the five games.
As the tournament progressed Wales were fortunate that injuries didn’t expose their lack of depth at fly half and centre, and as more of their forwards returned to full fitness, the performances on the pitch started to match the improved squad. Indeed quite the opposite they now have new players to call on going forward in Biggar, Coombs and the wonderful Tipuric. With players like Priestland and Lydiate still to return from injury, the international picture in Wales is looking rosy.
Champions of the Northern Hemisphere for two seasons in a row, Wales again will be turning their sight on gaining a Southern Hemisphere scalp. First comes the Lions tour to Australia though, and after such a superb team display, and on the back of a resilient squad performance there could be quite a few more Welsh players touring than could have been imagined just a few weeks ago.