Four from four. That great, ominous Six Nations statistic has haunted many a side. In most cases, the journey has never been easy. There have been thrashings and narrow victories, success away from familiar territory against teams either desperate to win knowing they too might achieve those sacred words, or sides with nothing to lose and pride and reputation to regain.
This year, it is the turn of Wales. The ride has not been entirely smooth, as much down to narrow results as the injury list that saw them written off before the tournament began. To achieve a Grand Slam in 2012 the fourth placed side at last year’s Rugby World Cup have had to win away in Dublin and at Twickenham, two places where success had proved limited in recent times.
Although the win against England was left late, and achieved by the narrowest of margins through a combination of Scott Williams’ brilliance and David Strettle’s narrow miss, it was that first victory that really set the Welsh title bid on fire. Leigh Halfpenny came of age as an international kicker. It gave the team the belief that they could claw back any defecit, sin-binning and tip tackles to one side. There is no better injection of self-belief than a victory that appears to have passed a side by.
Bursts of brilliance against Scotland and Italy back on home soil lowered the national blood pressure after the matches against Ireland and England. Which is good, because the heat is already starting to rise around Cardiff and beyond, as one Welsh journalist assured me yesterday afternoon.
Les Bleus stand in the way. Losing to England has left their campaign derailed and queries regarding their tactics have multiplied. What is their style? Where has the flair gone? Yet on Saturday they will step out onto the pitch in Cardiff with nothing to lose. What better time to cut loose than with the burden of playing for a title lifted off French shoulders.
That said, Wales are rightly favourites. This championship has gone their way, with players returning to fitness and the France-Ireland postponement meaning a much changed French team will arrive in town this weekend, untested, desperate for a performance. All Wales must do is keep their control, their patience in defence, kick all the points on offer and probably score a wonder try or two to win a third Grand Slam in seven years. Pressure? Some pressure.
No taste more bitter than seeing Rees retire
Whilst Lewis Moody’s retirement last week was met with general admiration and acclaim, the first reaction to yesterday’s news regarding Tom Rees hanging up his boots was a pang of pain and regret.
It will do nothing to ease his own suffering, but the retirement of the Wasps and England flanker is one of the great rugby disappointments of recent years. He finished with 15 caps, but forgoing the curse of injuries would have ended with over 50. The praise from former team mates across Twitter, from Rob Webber to Ryan Lamb to Joe Simpson, described him as the best age group player they had ever seen. Rees played with a physicality and leadership than England now launching into this new era would have given anything for. At 27, he has missed out on arguably another five years of international rugby, not counting the two or three denied him before now through spells on the sidelines. That his talent will never truly be fulfilled will sting for some time.
From Mexico City to Twickenham, the RWC 2015 is set to begin
It’s safe to say that the beginning of the Rugby World Cup 2015 cycle will commence in far more exotic climes than where it will finish. March 24th sees the first qualification match for the next global tournament start with Mexico, currently unranked, taking on Jamaica in Mexico City. Perhaps as some punishment for his controversial performance in last year’s Rugby World Cup final, Craig Joubert will take charge.
It begins a process that will see plenty of qualifying matches around the world, such as the Philippines against Sri Lanka in Manila and Senegal against Morocco in Madagascar. The beginning of this process serves a reminder that whilst the media is dominated by stories from the European and SANZAR leagues, Rugby truly is a global sport.
by Ben Coles