Written by Jacob Jaffa |
Wales are the 2019 Six Nations Champions and have won the Grand Slam after defeating reigning champions Ireland in Cardiff.
As a lifelong England fan, those are hard words to say. That being said I must, along with most fans of the game, admit a begrudging respect for what Warren Gatland’s team have achieved.
So how did it happen?
Firstly, the defensive performance Wales put on throughout this year’s tournament was as sublime to watch as it was frustrating for opposition players and fans alike.
Shaun Edwards, Wales’ defensive coach, is a rugby genius and should take a lot of credit for all defensive performances.
Built around the supreme team fitness bred by Warren Gatland’s famously gruelling pre-season training camps and aided by the defensive rock that is Jonathan Davies in the centres, Wales were able to hold their wingers slightly deeper behind the main defensive line. Davies showed defensive prowess and prevented oppositions from moving the ball into the wide channels in one phase, giving the wingers enough time to push up if the ball were to go wide.
In addition, the back three were pivotal throughout the tournament. The ability of Wales’ wingers to hang back, combined with the instinctively perfect positioning of Liam Williams at full-back, allowed the team to effectively kill the territorial kicking game of every other team in the competition.
“…it is now the relatively recent emergence of Josh Adams that has given Wales its best back-three balance.”
George North was, until the arrival of Joe Cokanasinga, perhaps the premier bulldozer winger in European rugby. However, North is still pivotal to the Wales’ back three, along with the relatively recent emergence of Josh Adams that has given Wales its best back three balance. Adams’ straight-line speed and hot-stepping agility has given Wales counter-attacking options from every area of the field.
Leigh Halfpenny also provides a nice backup with a metric tonne of international experience and the versatility to play full-back or on either wing.
It was arguably the leadership that held the most importance throughout the Six Nations. Alun Wyn Jones, the captain of Wales, is immense, not just in stature but in the impact he has physically and psychologically. Jones is regularly the hardest worker on the pitch and often motivates his teammates to meet the towering standards he sets.
Wales do have other on-field game managers with Gareth Anscombe and Jonathan Davies springing to mind. However, Jones does not simply manage the game; he takes charge of it. He is first to almost every ruck, he carries with power and confidence, he sprints up on the kick chase faster that most wingers (which for a near 19 stone, 33-year old is no mean feat).
Jones is the talisman of Welsh Rugby and, if he decides to retire after this year’s World Cup, he will be sorely missed. There is no doubt that if that is the case he would love to ride off into the sunset with the Webb-Ellis trophy.
“The Welsh are a tight-knit group, all willing to play for one another.”
The culture of the Welsh team is also certainly conducive towards victory. The Welsh are a tight-knit group, all willing to play for one another.
Warren Gatland is known to be a master of player management, providing a soft touch when needed, while Eddie Jones is famously autocratic. This stark contrast is what pushed Wales above the other nations as they provide a culture where leaders are able to flourish and really boss the team, while Jones’ method in England creates a group of team followers.
Lastly, team selection proved to be nearly picture-perfect for the Wales boss. Many people, including myself, were sceptical of what Gatland has been doing with his selection over the last year, but it has worked out to be a stroke of genius.
By trickling in a steady stream of uncapped players in starting positions, Gatland has built a squad where virtually every player has some experience as a test match player against one of the Big Five (Wallabies, All Blacks, Springboks, Ireland and England).
Furthermore, Gatland’s selections has created some beneficial competition to the team. The number 10 shirt selection battle highlights this with Gareth Anscombe, Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell seemingly all being in contention for the shirt. Anscombe is a good, solid fly-half, he can manage the game and distribute well which he proved in Wales’ game against Ireland. However, Biggar is a superstar and in my view is the best positional fly-half out there. Biggar’s raft of international experience, skills under the high ball second only to Israel Folau’s and that unteachable fly-half’s instinctive knowledge pushes him to the number one spot in my eyes. Either way all options are brilliant.
“All that remains now is to capture the World Cup…”
Overall, Wales have achieved something immense this year and Warren Gatland has put himself in position to be one of the greatest rugby coaches to have a hand in the game. All that remains now is to capture the World Cup…