Wales Wyn Again for Warren’s Gat-trick of Slams

After Wales’ third Grand Slam victory under Warren Gatland, The Gryphon takes a look back at what each team can take away from the tournament leading up to the World Cup.

[Image Credit: BBC]

Wales confirmed their status as the best team in the Northern Hemisphere with a dominant performance against a sorry Ireland team at a wet Principality Stadium. A deft chip from Man of the Match, Gareth Anscombe, allowed his fellow Kiwi, Hadleigh Parkes, to score in the opening minutes for a lead that Wales seldom looked like relinquishing. The result proved a fitting end to Gatland’s final Six Nations with the coach’s third Grand Slam triumph of his eleven-year tenure. Under Alun Wyn Jones’ leadership they have reaped the rewards of a simple game plan that backs their defence, work rate and fitness to throttle the life out of opponents. World Cups are not won with style points and such a strategy is often rewarded in the pressure cooker that is knockout rugby.

Ireland were suffocated by the Welsh defence, their pressure at the breakdown and the miserable conditions, and looked a shadow of the side that defeated New Zealand in the autumn. The usually infallible Murray-Sexton halfback axis was well below par in Cardiff and for most of the tournament. Their forward pack has also lacked the carrying power that wore teams down during their 2018 Grand Slam. It must trouble Joe Schmidt that his team lost both of their games against top tier opposition (Wales and England) by huge margins, especially in a World Cup year, and while they will still be deemed contenders, teams will not fear Ireland as they might once have done.

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England showed that they are capable of exceptional physicality and defence, but also betrayed certain mental frailties that Eddie Jones acknowledged after an extraordinary draw with Scotland. Racing into a 31-0 lead after half an hour, revenge for last year’s Murrayfield defeat looked certain, before a remarkable Scotland comeback levelled things. England looked rudderless and lacked a plan ‘B’ in a second half with echoes of their agonising defeat in Cardiff. When Scotland scored with minutes remaining, the greatest comeback in test history threatened to derail an overall positive tournament for England, who only saved face with an injury time score from George Ford. The discovery of a genuine openside in Tom Curry is surely England’s find of the tournament, and Jones’ men know they have it in them to beat anybody in the world. Yet, questions remain about their leadership, game management and ability to deal with passages of play where momentum swings against them, a pre-requisite for any World Cup winning side.

Scotland had their hearts broken at Twickenham in a 38-38 draw, the highest scoring draw in test history, that saw them retain the Calcutta Cup, but fail to record a first Twickenham win since 1983. The thriller at Twickenham rounded off an otherwise disappointing campaign for Gregor Townsend’s injury-ravaged side, with potential victories against Ireland and Wales slipping through their fingers. In Finn Russell they have a mercurial fly half able to unlock any defence, while Darcy Graham and Sam Johnson added to established names like Stuart Hogg to provide genuine firepower and take better advantage of the combative back row. Their issue remains mixing it with the best in the world up front as well as having the game management to edge out close matches.

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France in this tournament did enough to keep coach Jacques Brunel in his job, but little else. Their victory in Italy owed more to their opponents’ deficiencies than to their own brilliance, and with their cohort of young talent such as prop Demba Bamba, full back Tomos Ramos and centre/fly half Romain Ntmack they are likely building for a home World Cup in 2023 rather than 2019. The same questions over fitness and temperament remain for Les Bleus as before the tournament and were it not a World Cup year Brunel’s job would surely be on the line.

Italy showed glimpses of potential at home to Wales and Ireland, but picked up yet another wooden spoon and finished without even a bonus point to their name. They will rue the errors in attack which may have cost them a victory over France, yet in truth they remain far from genuine competitors. In his brief period in charge, Conor O’Shea has seen more success with his restructuring of domestic rugby, as evidenced by Treviso’s performance in the Pro 14, however such advances are yet to be seen at international level.