Well, after a game like that at the weekend what is there to say? Wales retained the Six Nations Championship in one of the very best games of rugby union I have ever seen in my entire life. I can’t quite believe how good we were. I’m so proud of the boys, and am now feeling very, very positive about the future of Welsh rugby. I’m not optimistic (or deluded) enough to think I’m going to be able to cover anything, but I’ll look to cover a few key points about Saturday’s win and Welsh rugby in general.
Our scrum was utterly dominant. To be honest, I was a bit miffed at the inclusion of Gethin as I felt that Paul James had played exceptionally well against Scotland, and I was concerned that we might lose a bit of firepower up front with Gethin on in place of Paul. Gethin truly stood up against England, and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that that was probably his best ever scrummaging performance.
I have been critical of Gethin recently – his move to Toulon has backfired and he is not playing enough rugby out in France, but he has clearly grown in confidence as the tournament has gone on and he put in an exceptional front row performance on Saturday. Adam Jones played like the player he is – the best tighthead in the world, bar none. Hibbard completed the front row dominance with a devastating performance around the park in addition to his work at scrum time. I might be accused of bias, but I think we could be looking at the Lions front row in these three.
The back row battle
A long time ago I suggested selecting Sam and Justin together in the backrow, and I do have to be honest and say that I had gone off the idea recently. How wrong was I? Either player could have won man of the match, and Tips sublime piece of skill to put Alex Cuthbert in just about clinched it for him.
I think what I enjoyed so much about Tips performance is the fact that he solved our centre problem. Both mongrel and myself have voiced concerns in the past about the lack of a creator in the Welsh midfield, but with Justin at 7, those concerns don’t matter anywhere near as much, because Tips is able to act as an extra back; and an exceptionally creative one too.
I was very pleased for Sam, and I think he has been heroic in the last two games. I always felt that Sam had got it in him, and credit to him, the way Rob Howley has handled the Sam situation is nothing short of first class. Sam was under a lot of pressure and needed to be handled with care, and hats off to Rob for doing exactly what was needed.
I must mention Toby Faletau too, who had one of his best outings in a Welsh shirt. He has developed well and was immense in attack and defence. Our backrow looks very balanced, and I think this bodes well as the starting 6, 7 and 8 in the future, with Ryan able to come on and add additional work rate and leadership when required.
Everything is so much easier for the scrumhalf when the pack is dominating; but nonetheless it has to be stated that Mike Phillips put in an inspired performance from the first whistle. Anyone who thinks the Lions number 9 shirt will belong to someone other than Phillips is kidding themselves.
As far as 10 goes, it was a tough call between Dan Biggar and James Hook at the start of the tournament. The coaches stuck with Dan and in my mind it’s paid dividends. One overlooked aspect of Dan’s game is that he is a winner. He’s won titles with the Ospreys and that showed on Saturday as he put in an exceptional performance in all aspects. Farrell, who has been tipped as the Lions 10, was totally overshadowed by Biggar, and on the strength of Saturday, Biggar has every chance of making the Lions tour.
Everyone who reads this blog will know that I have never been a fan of the Roberts/Davies centre partnership. However, they both had great games on Saturday and with someone like Tipuric able to enter the line and act as a link man (similarly to Martyn Williams in his heyday); the lack of creativity does not matter anywhere near as much. Roberts and Davies also put in some great passes – both contributed directly to our tries.
What really made our centres stand out though was their defence. Roberts absolutely smashed Tuilagi early on, and both Roberts and Davies contributed towards an imperious blitz defence that nullified the English attacking threat.
Alex Cuthbert is the best finisher in the Northern Hemisphere. I personally think it’s criminal that he has not been nominated for player of the tournament after finishing top of the tries table. Another player who keeps getting better and better: when we need a try, Cuthbert delivers.
I thought George also had a fantastic game and it was good to see him running with ball in hand again. He showed some good ability from side to side and is back in with a shout of a Lions test spot. Both our wingers really benefited from the ball they were getting from the pack and Dan Biggar’s distribution skills and if we can continue to dominate sides up front, Cuthbert and North will both score many, many more tries for Wales.
What do you say about Halfpenny? Utterly immense as usual. At the risk of being controversial, Halfpenny is a better player than Goode, Hogg and Kearney, and I’ll be massively surprised if he doesn’t wear the 15 shirt in Australia this summer
Our boys, from 1-23 were immense and I think the most pleasing aspect for me is our strength in depth. We now have two front rows that are capable of competing at the highest levels, a true embarrassment of riches at lock (when all are fit), any number of back row combinations, two great scrumhalves and two good 10’s. To build even further, we must develop our options in the centre and look to blood some more back three players. The development tour to Japan will be the perfect opportunity to do that, and I’m excited by the prospect of guys like Eli Walker showing what they can do in a Welsh jersey.
How much does this win mean?
This win means everything. Howley remarked after the game that this achievement meant more than last year’s Grand Slam and that’s hard to disagree with. The contrast of our first half performance against Ireland is truly staggering. For me, this game should and will go down in the annals of history as the point where this Welsh side matured.
Where do we go from here?
Although I’m delighted about the prospect of the Lions this summer, part of me is disappointed that we’re not heading to a Southern Hemisphere nation to have a real crack at Australia, South Africa or New Zealand. If Wales play like they played on Saturday, I truly believe they could beat anybody. So the next step has to be a Southern Hemisphere scalp – we don’t want any more false dawns. My only hope is that the Lions tour goes well and our players come back confident rather than burnt out.
This victory should be seen as a beginning. It’s fantastic to beat England, but now let’s take this forward, let’s not rest on our laurels, and let’s turn into the world beaters that we know we can be.
What about the Lions?
The Coal Face will be covering the Lions this summer, and it’s an expansion we’re delighted to be undertaking. You’ll get many more articles about the makeup of the Lions squad and other Lions related issues over the next few months, but I thought I’d finish this article by indicating what my current first choice Lions side would be. Naturally, there are a lot of Welshmen in it. Let us know what you thought of the game, where you think Wales are at the moment and what your thoughts on the Lions are too. I am so, so proud of the boys, and I’m delighted for every single one of them. We went into this tournament in a terrible state, and came out of it with the trophy. Da iawn boys, da iawn.
1. Gethin Jenkins 2. Richard Hibbard 3. Adam Jones 4. Alun-Wyn Jones 5. Ian Evans 6. Sam Warburton 7. Justin Tipuric 8. Toby Faletau 9. Mike Phillips 10. Owen Farrell 11. George North 12. Jamie Roberts 13. Manu Tuilagi 14. Alex Cuthbert 15. Leigh Halfpenny