Wales’ camp was surrounded by doom and gloom less than a fortnight ago, but now with two wins from two the words ‘Wales Six Nations Grand Slam’ are starting to be whispered with a little more vigour.
A 21-16 win over Ireland in Cardiff in week one and a come from behind 25-24 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield have allowed Welsh fans to dream of adding another Grand Slam year to 2005, 2008, 2012 and 2019.
Wales Six Nations Grand Slam on track for Paris showdown
Alun-Wyn Jones and his teammates will be licking their lips ahead of their next clash, against England at the Principality Stadium on February 27, and [should be] confident of a win on the road against Italy in Rome on March 13.
That would leave Wayne Pivac’s team the task of winning at the Stade de France in Paris in the tournament’s final match to make it five-wins-from-five and claim European bragging rights once again.
What Wales need (a) Experienced Spine
In the build up to the match against Scotland a lot was made of the players Pivac didn’t have available, notably centre Jonathan Davies, flanker Dan Lydiate, and wings Josh Adams and George North.
However, a quick glance down the team sheet quickly dispelled any thoughts of Wales being green. Captain Alun-Wyn Jones led the way on the day he won his 145th cap and he was ably assisted in the pack by hooker Ken Owens, number 8 Taulupe Faletau, and flanker Justin Tipuric who brought another 241 caps worth of experience.
It was the same in the backline where Gareth Davies, 58 caps, and Dan Biggar, 88 caps, formed the halfback partnership, and Leigh Halfpenny, 94 caps, and Liam Williams, 67 caps, featured at fullback and wing.
That level of experience meant there was no sign of panic when Scotland went 17-3 ahead, nor when they retook the lead at 24-20 late in the match.
“You can’t give a team two tries, but I’m pleased with the resilience, character and pride in the jersey we’re still showing,” Jones said. “We’re well aware there are massive improvements to make.”
It is that sort of resilience Wales will need to add wins over England, Italy, and France.
What Wales need (b) Pack clicking into gear
Alun Wyn Jones’ presence in the middle of the pack was certainly a vital factor in both the way he plays and the way he leads.
He along with Tipuric were responsible for the two lineout steals, while their 11 lineout throw wins from 11 stood in start contrast to the 23 they had lost on their own throw from the previous seven matches.
Hooker Owen’s experience is one-part of the equation, but the performances of props Wyn Jones and Tom Francis have given Wales the solid foundation that they lacked before Christmas.
Add in the return of Aaron Wainwright and his ability to go through a barrow-load of work on the blindside flank, and Pivac can look forward to standing tall against England and France’s much-vaunted packs.
As ever Wales are showing that while the public may focus on their stellar backs, the strength of the pack is likely to be more decisive in the final outcome.
What Wales need (c) More magic from Rees-Zammit
Welsh fans have been waiting for Louis Rees-Zammit to be let off the leash and against Scotland, the Gloucester winger didn’t disappoint.
View this post on Instagram
After his try against Ireland, he showed his class again with a brace against Gregor Townsend’s outfit. His first was a relatively simple finish, but his second was a magical chip and jet-heeled chase over Scotland captain Stuart Hogg to seal the win.
From Gerald Davies, to Ieuan Evans and on to North, Welsh wingers in the 14 jersey have made huge impressions down the years and the 20-year-old Rees-Zammit is beginning to show that he is the latest in that proud lineage.
“I just tried to use my gas and get on the outside,” he said. “I saw there was no cover in the back field, so I put a kick over the full-back and I got the bounce. It came straight into my hands.
“I’m thoroughly enjoying it here. I’ve settled in really well with this team and they’re all helping me. I’m loving being here and playing on this stage.”
Rees-Zammit’s scoring aside, Pivac’s side has improved its ruthlessness from the Autumn. Against Scotland Wales spent just 90 seconds in Scotland’s 22 and left with four tries, the type of strike-rate they will need if they want to lift the trophy in Paris.
❝It’s been emotional. My daughters and my wife back in Cardiff, and my parents watching in New Zealand. They’re all proud❞
A long journey to a memorable first cap for @whalaholo 🏴
𝘔𝘢𝘦’𝘳 𝘨𝘸𝘢𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘤𝘢𝘭𝘦𝘥 𝘸𝘦𝘥𝘪 𝘵𝘢𝘭𝘶 𝘢𝘳 𝘦𝘪 𝘨𝘢𝘯𝘧𝘦𝘥 𝘪’𝘳 𝘤𝘢𝘯𝘰𝘭𝘸𝘳 pic.twitter.com/C335y8dnGB
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) February 15, 2021
All Wales Six Nations Grand Slam roads lead to Paris
If all goes to plan Wales will be running out onto the Stade de France pitch at 21.00 (local time) knowing that victory will cap their fifth Grand Slam of the professional era.
Should they secure it then it will be a turnaround akin to their class of 2008, who went from being knocked out of the France 2007 Rugby World Cup at the group stage to using their first win at Twickenham in 20 years as a springboard to a Grand Slam in Warren Gatland’s first year in charge.
Of course, there is nothing that Eddie Jones’ England side would like more than to burst the Welsh bubble when they visit Cardiff in the next round of matches and on two of the last three encounters England have returned across the Severn Bridge with a win under their belts.
“We’re aware England had a good win (41-18 v Italy) and are back on track,” said Alun Wyn Jones, a man who rarely looks beyond the next match. “We’ll be back at Principality (Stadium), so we’ll regroup and improve on the parts we need to.”
Wales have won on two of their last visits to Paris, notably their 24-19 victory in 2019 that set them on their way to the Grand Slam. Six of the team that began against Scotland were in the starting team, while four more were on the bench.
The current message is about keeping feet on the ground and not getting too far ahead, but Pivac is confident that there is more to come from his side.
“It’s a very pleasing start, but I think it was evident to everyone that it wasn’t the complete performance,” said head coach Pivac after their win over Scotland. It’s only round two of the tournament and we’d expect to be improving every time we take the field.”
And improve they must, as next up they will face England at home, before away trips to Rome (vs Italy) and the biggest fixture for the Welsh side, vs France in Paris on March 20.
Guinness Six Nations: Round Three – February 27. Wales v England, Cardiff.
Round Four – March 13. Italy v Wales, Rome
Round Five – March 20. France v Wales, Paris.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images