Three games, three wins and the Triple Crown to boot.
Even in Wayne Pivac’s wildest dreams he could not have imagined a better start to the 2021 Guinness Six Nations for Wales after a bumpy beginning to life as head coach.
Wales only picked up one victory in Pivac’s first Championship in charge last year as their defence of the 2019 title they won under Warren Gatland failed to materialise.
Unbeaten Wales seal Triple Crown with emphatic England win
But a hard-fought 21-16 victory over 14-man Ireland on the opening weekend followed by an equally tight 25-24 win in Scotland got their latest campaign off to a flying start.
And the optimism from those two triumphs turned to jubilation after Wales maintained their perfect record by overcoming defending champions England in spectacular style in Cardiff.
The 40-24 victory was Wales’ highest points tally against their fierce rivals and ensured that they remain on course to emulate their Grand Slam success from two years’ ago.
So what’s changed? How have Wales gone from finishing fifth last year to contending for a clean sweep? Well, one answer to those questions lies with their phenomenal back row.
FEROCIOUS FALETAU ON ANOTHER LEVEL
Let’s not beat around the bush, Taulupe Faletau has been nothing short of sensational so far in this year’s Championship in a back row that just keeps going from strength to strength.
The No.8 was deservedly named Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match for his performance against England, having also impressed against both Ireland and Wales.
Faletau made 18 carries for 112 metres at Principality Stadium on Saturday, always providing the hosts with an escape route when they were put under pressure by England.
Jones: Wales squad has the perfect balance
He now has 38 carries in the 2021 Championship, the second-most behind Ireland’s CJ Stander, while his 14 tackles against England means he has an incredible 53 overall this year.
After being plagued by injury over the past couple of years, the 30-year-old appears to be back to his best for his country as well as his club (he was man of the match for Bath in the fallow week).
His influence is certainly appreciated by his teammate Justin Tipuric, who when asked about him recently said: “He’s world class. It’s just a bit of fun when we’re out there.
“When you’ve got someone like that on the side of you it’s about giving him the ball in space, letting him work his magic. He makes everyone else look good then.”
TITAN TIPURIC THE TACKLING KING
Talking of Justin Tipuric, the 31-year-old has also been immense in 2021.
While Faletau, Louis Rees-Zammit and Callum Sheedy stole most of the headlines against England, Tipuric quietly went about his business once again in Cardiff.
Tipuric is the only player who has made more tackles than Faletau in this year’s Guinness Six Nations, with his 10 tackles against England taking his overall tally to 55.
Wales’ defence has been at the heart of their success so far in the Championship and Tipuric has led from the front along with captain Alun Wyn Jones with his incredible workrate.
Tipuric also topped the charts for Wales’ own ruck arrivals at Principality Stadium with 30, emphasising just how important the flanker is to his side’s attack as well as defence.
Both Tipuric and Faletau are players who are more than capable of throwing the ball around and with Pivac’s more ambitious brand of rugby, their influence is greater than ever before.
Their back row partner Josh Navidi also deserves recognition for the role he played in the victory over England, accumulating 15 tackles and 24 attacking ruck arrivals for the hosts.
WALES ATTACK STARTING TO SING
Many had pinpointed the back row battle as the decisive contest before Round 3 and so it proved as Tipuric, Faletau and Navidi all enjoyed excellent games for Wales.
Considering they had to deal with a rejuvenated Billy Vunipola, who was by far and away England’s best player in attack and defence, their performances deserve even more credit.
But one of the most important differences between the Wales of 2020 and this year’s edition can be seen by their vast improvement in attack – the reason Pivac was brought in.
Known for the flair his teams have shown in the past, Pivac was expected to bring a more entertaining brand of rugby to Wales as they looked to begin a new era following Gatland’s departure.
Thirteen tries from five games in last year’s Championship was a less than satisfactory return, though, and Wales did not look much more threatening in the Autumn Nations Cup.
But Pivac’s side already have 10 tries from three games in 2021 as the likes of Rees-Zammit, Kieran Hardy and Callum Sheedy have added an extra dimension to the Welsh attack.
And with Faletau and Tipuric providing the space for the new boys to show what they can do, Wales are now well on the way to achieving Grand Slam glory once again.