Analysis: Wales at the peak of their powers

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From dark horses to Grand Slam champions – to describe Wales’ journey during the 2019 Guinness Six Nations as a rollercoaster ride would be to do it a mighty disservice.

From dark horses to Grand Slam champions – to describe Wales’ journey during the 2019 Guinness Six Nations as a rollercoaster ride would be to do it a mighty disservice.

Warren Gatland laid down the gauntlet to his players ahead of the Championship, predicting that they could win the title if they overcame a daunting first test against France in Paris.

And it looked like the weight of expectation would be too much for them to carry after the opening 40 minutes at the Stade de France as Wales trailed the hosts 16-0 at the break.

But a remarkable second-half comeback – assisted by some French errors – paved the way for a campaign which saw them go from strength to strength as the Championship progressed.

It culminated in their best performance as they defeated defending champions Ireland to complete the clean sweep in Cardiff and give Gatland a perfect Guinness Six Nations send-off.

Things were really not looking good for Wales at the Stade de France in the opening match of the 2019 Championship as Les Bleus raced into a commanding first-half advantage.

But Wales were not on a nine-match winning streak without reason and they emerged a different beast after the restart as a George North brace helped them to a famous 24-19 victory.

Italy gave Gatland’s men another fright in Round 2, but once again they held their nerve as late scores from Josh Adams and Owen Watkin ensured a 26-15 win.

The only other unbeaten side left in the Championship were up next. England travelled to Cardiff for what had quickly transformed into a potential Grand Slam and title decider.

Eddie Jones’ men made the better start and forged 10-3 ahead at the interval before Wales fought back with a brutal second-half showing to claim a record-breaking 12th consecutive win.

Hope had turned to expectation – but Scotland at BT Murrayfield is never a given and Wales had to show plenty of character under intense pressure to prevail 18-11 winners in Edinburgh.

That meant only the defending champions could derail them, with Ireland and England both still harbouring outside title hopes going into the final weekend of the Championship.

Any nerves were put to rest inside two minutes, though, as Hadleigh Parkes crossed the whitewash. Gareth Anscombe added 20 points with the boots and the rest, as they say, is history.

There are many decisive moments that could be argued as Championship-defining for Wales.

Josh Adams’ break to set up the first try against France, George North’s interception in the same game, Adams’ try in Rome and Wales’ defence against Scotland are all worthy nominees.

Then there’s Hadleigh Parkes’ try in the opening 70 seconds against Ireland – or even his try-saving challenge down the other end of the pitch to deny Jacob Stockdale soon after.

But while all of those contributed to their Grand Slam glory, it’s hard to look past Cory Hill’s epic try against England as Wales took the lead for the first time against the Red Rose.

Having found themselves trailing 10-3 at the break, Gatland’s troops cut England’s lead to 13-9 thanks to the boot of Gareth Anscombe with just 12 minutes remaining.

It was then that they moved up another gear. Hammering the English defence with drive after drive, they edged ever nearer the whitewash and that elusive first try.

On the 35th phase, England finally cracked. Dan Biggar’s wide pass changed the point of attack and Hill’s clever line allowed him to charge over from close range – cue Welsh bedlam.

Biggar converted and Adams grabbed another try late on to ensure a 21-13 success. It was a huge blow in the Championship title race, one England never recovered from.

Where to start? It feels unfair to single out individual players as there were Welsh heroes all over the field – and throughout the entire squad – during the Championship.

Unsurprisingly, that was reflected in the Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship nominees, with Welshmen taking up four of the six spots.

Parkes was among the select few to make the shortlist, with the 31-year-old’s tendency to produce the goods when it mattered cropping up time and time again.

Another nominee was Liam Williams, whose man of the match display against England tipped the momentum in Wales’ favour as he almost singlehandedly nullified the visitors’ kicking game.

Meanwhile, Adams was one of four players to start every game for Gatland’s side – and he rewarded the faith shown in him with three tries during the Championship.

But it was captain fantastic, Alun Wyn Jones, who added yet another accolade to his collection after beating his teammates to be crowned the 2019 Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship.

It was deserved recognition for the 33-year-old skipper, the driving force behind Wales’ triumph as he drew level with Gethin Jenkins’ record of 134 Test appearances.

An honourable mention should also go to Josh Navidi, who started every game and made 83 tackles, while Dan Biggar and Gareth Anscombe were both excellent when called upon at No.10.

The future looks bright for Wales. Not only did they claim the Grand Slam, they did so while introducing a host of new faces to the intensity of Rugby’s Greatest Championship.

Few impressed more than Adams, though, with the 23-year-old winger appearing to establish himself as a firm fixture on the wing for Wales for years to come with his displays.

It was his break that got Wales up and running against Paris in Round One, while he also score decisive tries against Italy, England and Scotland to help his side emerge triumphant.

Elsewhere, scrum-half Tomos Williams was somewhat unfortunate to have his Championship marred by injury, but he still scored the crucial first try against Les Bleus in Paris.

A number of future prospects were also given their chance to shine against Italy, with Owen Watkin, Aled Davies and Aaron Wainwright demonstrating Wales’ strength-in-depth.

Wales head coach Warren Gatland said: “There was no doubt I was reasonably emotional afterwards. It’s great. I get such a buzz watching those guys lifting the trophy and celebrating.

“That’s what it’s all about – creating history and winning Grand Slams, things nobody can ever take away from you. I am pretty proud of what I have achieved.

“I am pretty proud of what this coaching and management team have achieved. It’s pretty special. I think I will enjoy that afterwards, but the game is always about the players and we stress that.

“It was a great performance [against Ireland] and the boys thoroughly deserved it. This group of players will run through a brick wall for you.

“The younger players have come through with no fear and shown real character. They’ve worked their butts off in this campaign and we’ve pushed them hard.”

Gatland became the only coach in Championship history to lead a side to three Grand Slams after Wales defeated Ireland 25-7 to ensure a perfect 2019 Guinness Six Nations.

It was the New Zealander’s final Championship in charge – as he prepares to step down following this year’s Rugby World Cup – but he couldn’t have dreamed of a better finish.

His thoughts now turn to the World Cup this autumn in Japan, where Wales will head as one of the favourites to lift the title after leapfrogging Ireland into second in the world rankings.

Wales reached the semi-finals for the first time since 1987 under Gatland in 2011 before a red card for Sam Warburton contributed to an agonising 9-8 defeat to France.

A quarter-final run in 2015 ended with defeat to South Africa, but Wales have won their last 14 Tests – an ongoing national record – and only New Zealand remain off their list of fallen opposition.

If Gatland had hoped to go under the radar into the World Cup, winning the Grand Slam has emphatically ended that. The question now is: can anyone stop Wales in Japan?