Gerry Thornley: Wales have the momentum to claim Grand Slam
Pivac’s bold Autumn Nations Cup move has been key factor in side’s Six Nations success
Wales’ hooker Ken Owens is tackled by England’s prop Mako Vunipola during their victory at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images
In the build-up to last Saturday’s game in the Principality Stadium the joke doing the rounds in Wales was that they were just three red cards away from a Grand Slam. In light of Pascal Gaüzère donating them two seven-pointers in the first half-hour of the game, the quip elsewhere was that, for a variation, this was a case 16 v 15.
So it is that at more or less the half-way point – Les Bleus dilettante attitude to life in a bubble having contributed to the postponement of their game against Scotland and ensuring seven games remain – Wales sit atop the table with 14 points out of a possible 15 and the Triple Crown in the bag.
To put this in perspective, you could have backed Wales at 20/1 to win the Triple Crown before the start. On the fairly safe assumption that they will beat Italy on Saturday week in Rome with another bonus point, they will travel to Paris on the final Saturday potentially with the title already won, or at any rate with not only the title on the line but seeking a Grand Slam as well.
Having come into the tournament on the back of a woeful 2020, in which only Italy propped them off bottom place in the Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup and Wayne Pivac’s tenure looked sure to be short-lived, Wales were 16/1 to win the Championship and 40/1 to win the Grand Slam.
Of course they’ve ridden their luck but it would be too simple to look at how the Irish provinces consistently outperform the Welsh regions in both Europe and especially the Pro14 and dismiss them as the luckiest Triple Crown winners of all time, for they’ve certainly made the most of their good fortune.
Nor is it exactly the first time that Wales have seemingly been greater than the sum of their regional parts, as save for the Pivac-inspired revolution at the Scarlets, they’ve been at this lark for a while now.
The Scarlets, at full strength, can still take on most teams in Europe, witness their win away to Bath at the Rec where they were much the more daring team. But the Pro14, as much as anything, is a test of the teams’ strength in depth, and in this regard the Irish provinces are well ahead of all their rivals right now.
Their budgets, with the exception of the Scarlets (circa €9 million per annum), are not as big as Leinster, Munster and Ulster, and when the WRU slashed their funding of the regions this season and took out a loan for about €22 million, the latter were obliged to pay it back to the union.
With increasingly less overseas players at the regions, thereby further weakening their hand during Test windows especially, witness the importance of a player like Jean Kleyn in Munster’s win over Cardiff last Friday night, never mind their vastly superior bench.
The performance of the Welsh and Irish Under-20s over the last decade or so have not been that dissimilar, but for financial and educational reasons, they have a greater struggle in keeping their players home based. Callum Sheedy, for example, being educated at Millfield School and so ended up playing for Bristol.
There are an estimated 70-plus Welsh players playing in the Premiership or the Championship, of whom about 25 would be contenders for the Welsh squad. So it is that the WRU cannot completely ignore foreign-based players á la Ireland, and hence there are six Premiership players in the current Welsh squad. As in the first fallow week, they will all be obliged to play for their Premiership employers this weekend.
However, this has also meant more home-grown players being exposed at regional level, and Pivac was brave in using the Autumn Nations Cup as a breeding ground. Going into this Six Nations, James Botham, Kieran Hardy, Sheedy and Louis Rees-Zammit each had less than five caps, but they have made significant contributions to their three wins so far, albeit Sheedy and Rees-Zammit are also based with English clubs.
Every team benefits from a brilliant, young free-spirited new kid on the block, and Rees-Zammit is having the kind of first season impact reminiscent of Jacob Stockdale in Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam.
But nor has Pivac thrown out the baby with the bath water. The return of Ken Owens has revived their set-piece, where forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys has to take immense credit for the much improved lineout – an Achilles’ heel for much of 2020. Their maul, which was the platform for three of their four tries against Scotland and the match-clinching bonus-point try by Corey Hill against England, has also been transformed.
There were signs that Pivac and Stephen Jones had figured out the best means of using Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau in their fifth-place play-off Autumn Nations Cup win over Italy in December by employing them in midfield or wider out.
Tipuric is world class and Faletau has been back to his best, and they’ve been helped by the timely return of Josh Navidi. Employing George North at outside centre has rejuvenated him, and for all Leigh Halfpenny has done for his country (and is sidelined again with concussion) Wales look to have a more potent attack with Liam Williams at fullback.
Wales have riches aplenty at scrumhalf when you consider how Tomos Williams would still be first choice but for being injured against Ireland, while Rhys Webb is playing superbly and can’t get a look in.
The decision to bring Sheedy on early in the second half of both wins against Scotland and England was typical of the team’s bold approach. Sheedy nailed three nerveless penalties but in tandem with Gareth Davies marhsalled the final quarter brilliantly.
In outscoring an increasingly ill-disciplined England from 24-all with 16 unanswered points in the last 17 minutes, Wales didn’t miss a beat and hardly made a mistake, varying their attack off sharp lineouts with a clever kick chase and attacking game. They held their nerve and out-thought as well as outfought England in that final quarter.
After those two opening wins, you could sense their rediscovered sense of belief from the off on Saturday. The sharply taken cross-kicked penalty by Biggar and the tap penalty and dart for the try line by Hardy showed how more alert they were than England, but would they have turned down certain three-pointers had they not won their opening two games?
Who knows, but it’s all somehow typically Welsh, for it’s invariably all or nothing with them. Give them a little momentum and their chests swell.