Ireland, the strongest contenders for a Grand Slam before the Six Nations started, are already out of the running. Scotland, the dark horses for many fans, are also out. England are deservedly favourites to pull off the ultimate Six Nations triumph after two very impressive wins but what about Wales?
Is a Welsh Grand Slam really on the cards?
On the one hand, Wales have just equaled their longest-ever running streak, a record lasting more than a century. On the other, they struggled to beat France and Italy in the opening rounds, probably the two weakest teams in the current Six Nations. Moreover, at no point in this winning streak have they beaten a team above them in the rankings. They are yet to play England and Ireland at home as well as Scotland away: all very tough games. Meanwhile, England look imperious.
That seems like a fairly straightforward answer, then: no. Grand Slams are not easy, for one thing. The England Rugby World Cup winning team of 2003 only managed one despite mostly dominating the competition in the preceding three years. Ireland have only won two in 70 years. Wales have actually managed three between 2005 and 2012 but have largely struggled since. They are currently ranked below both England and Ireland by World Rugby and are yet to beat England under Eddie Jones in four attempts.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) April 26, 2018
Why, then, is anyone hoping for a Welsh Grand Slam?
Aside from the blind optimism that is the oil in the gears of competitive sports, why are any fans talking about a Welsh Grand Slam? Is the 11-match winning streak against inferior teams enough to justify it?
In that run, Wales have beaten Argentina (away) twice, Australia (home), France (home and away), Italy (home and away), Scotland (home), South Africa (home and neutral venue) twice, and Tonga (home). While none of those teams are currently higher in the rankings than Wales, Australia have long been a bogey team for Wales. South Africa had just beaten New Zealand in Wellington and run England close at Twickenham. The opening round of the Six Nations against France in Paris is not an easy game.
More importantly, in all of those games, Wales consistently prioritised giving certain younger players high-level experience rather than playing their strongest side. Almost all Wales’ Lions were left behind on the summer tour. There can’t be many who believe that Adam Beard, for all his promise, is currently a better lock than Cory Hill or Jake Ball. Likewise, Josh Adams is not more likely to start in a World Cup knockout game than Liam Williams, all other things being equal. The team against Italy was nobody’s idea of first choice.
Choosing to give those younger players a chance to gain international exposure against good teams is all part of Gatland’s plan to have the strongest squad possible for the Rugby World Cup in Japan later this year. It also makes that winning streak a bit more impressive than it initially seems.
It also makes the inevitable injuries of a Six Nations campaign less of a concern than they once might have been. Already Wales have been missing Leigh Halfpenny and Taulupe Faletau, both two-times British & Irish Lions, as well as a clutch of back-rowers. Their replacements have stepped up.
Momentum, momentum, momentum
Warren Gatland said before the tournament that, if Wales won their opening game against France, they could go on to win the tournament. That’s not because he thought it would be the hardest game but because Wales tend to get better the longer they spend together. Their two Grand Slams under Gatland came in 2008 and 2012, just after the squads had spent extended periods together during World Cups. In 2016, they came second despite still struggling with many of the injuries that hampered their 2015 RWC campaign.
? Something to get you (even more) in the mood for Saturday…
Here’s Jonathan Davies scoring as Wales won 23-21 in Ireland on the way to the 2012 Grand Slam! ?
— BBC ScrumV (@BBCScrumV) February 22, 2018
At the start of the autumn campaign, Gatland said that the all Wales’ international rugby, both on the pitch and in training, was being geared towards the RWC. He openly used the first two rounds of the Six Nations as World Cup practice, taking a 31-man squad to a training base in Nice and replicating the turnaround between games. This is a squad who are building momentum and they could be very hard to stop.
The expectations game
The expectation and pressure of a Grand Slam can crush a team. It causes opponents to raise their game to stop it. A Grand Slam is a mental victory as much as anything else. Time and again we have seen highly favoured English, French, and Irish teams fall at the final hurdle in games they could have won.
Perhaps because the expectations on Wales are lower, they don’t seem to suffer from this problem as much. Even in 2012, off the back off a World Cup semi-final, they weren’t really fancied. From the outside, Welsh Grand Slams can feel more like a smash and grab campaign, sneaking up out of nowhere.
That’s why Wales fans believe this might be their year. England’s performances have been impressive and there’s no doubting they have the talent, depth, and desire. But the sniff of a Welsh Grand Slam is in the air now and the Wales team know it. Round three in Cardiff will be a huge test for both sides. If Wales win, expectations of a Welsh Grand Slam will be much higher.
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