A third Grand Slam in eight years, another subsequent Triple Crown to add to the collection and a player voted the Six Nations’ best. This was a tournament of great success for Warren Gatland’s side – and there is undoubtedly more to come.
It’s easy to forget that Wales’ chances were roundly dismissed heading into their tournament opener against Ireland. Missing the likes Dan Lydiate, Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Luke Charteris and Alun Wyn Jones, many felt their tournament hopes would be extinguished with a morale-destroying defeat. Not for the first time in the last six months, Wales defied public opinion.
Two excellent Jon Davies tries, the second from a superb George North off-load, were cancelled out by tries from Rory Best and Tommy Bowe but North struck to give Wales hopes with minutes to spare. Referee Wayne Barnes then deemed Stephen Ferris to have tip-tackled Ian Evans, and Leigh Halfpenny displayed the type of calmness that characterised his tournament to kick Wales to victory.
They took rather longer to get going against Scotland before a try from Alex Cuthbert and a double from Halfpenny saw them comfortably home, and that was followed by a heart-stopping victory at Twickenham, where England became the second team to come desperately close to stopping Gatland’s charges.
Amid all the early drama there had been some sparkling performances. Substitute Scott Williams stole the limelight in the England game with a piece of brilliant daylight robbery, but it was Sam Warburton and his back-row colleagues who were beginning to get the praise they deserved. Warburton had already been forced off against Ireland before missing the Scotland game, but he returned with a man of the match-winning effort, brilliantly helped by Lydiate and Toby Faletau.
Behind the scrum, others were beginning to make their mark in the tournament. Davies’ two-try haul in the opener was eye-catching, but it was the energy that he brought into the side’s backline that really stood out. His partnership with Jamie Roberts was beginning to thrive, while North’s early bulldozing runs seemed to galvanize Cuthbert, who began to offer a similar threat.
Many were disappointed with Wales’ inability to put Italy to the sword, but a try from Roberts and another for Cuthbert sealed a comfortable win where Lydiate again showed his excellent work-rate as his team conceded just three points. Scores elsewhere had left Wales huge favourites to take the Six Nations final heading into the last weekend though the Grand Slam was still in the balance against a French side eager to make amends for defeat against England.
Wales’ performance was steady if not inspiring, but it was still greeted with the same rapturous celebrations that have greeted the last two in recent times. Another gargantuan display from Lydiate was rightly rewarded with the man of the match trophy, while an expertly taken try from Cuthbert suggests Wales may well have found a fearsome wing pairing to take them through many years.
Mention of Wales’ other top performers should also not be forgotten. Jones and Jenkins were the proverbial rocks in the scrum, Warburton excelled despite injury, Faletau controlled the side excellently from the base and Evans was perhaps one of the best second rows in the tournament.
It’s easy to extol the virtues of this Welsh outfit, and another who must deserve credit, along with his coaching team, is Gatland. One caveat that must come with such success is that Gatland will be deemed the perfect candidate to take the Lions to Australia next year. Among the options, his achievements are largely without parallel – and you’d be a brave man to bet against the Lions captain being Welsh.
As for the time being though, Wales now move on to a summer three-test series of their own against Australia, where their mettle will be truly tested. But as worthy Six Nations champions, there is no better side right now to represent the Northern Hemisphere against Robbie Deans’ Wallabies.
by Tom James