Wales’ NatWest 6 Nations campaign began with all the talk being about their lengthy injury list, but they ended it second in the table with several new names stepping up to the mark.
With players such as Aaron Shingler, Steff Evans and Hadleigh Parkes all enjoying successful a Championship, it’s been an encouraging year for Warren Watland’s side.
Click here for the final 2018 NatWest 6 Nations table
Here is the story of the Welsh campaign: Wales finished fifth in the 2017 Championship, with victories against Italy and Ireland to show for their efforts and this was followed by a mixed autumn series.
Defeats against Australia and New Zealand were balanced out by wins against Georgia and South Africa, but the months leading up to the Championship had really taken a toll on their players.
Going into their opening match with Scotland at Principality Stadium, Wales were going to be without key players Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams and George North.
But captain Alun Wyn Jones was backing their replacements to be up to the job, saying: “We have a little bit of fresh blood and there are questions to be asked of those guys.”
Wales 34-7 Scotland
Wales need not have worried, as a side including ten players from Guinness PRO14 champions the Scarlets proved too hot to handle for a much-fancied Scotland in Cardiff.
One of the senior men to survive the injury crisis, full-back Leigh Halfpenny, scored two of their four tries on the day, in the process ending a barren run that stretched back to 2013.
Shingler was named Man of the Match and there were several other of the players drafted in, such as the new half-back pairing of Gareth Davies and Rhys Patchell, that impressed.
But while the standard of Wales’ performance may have caught some off-guard, that wasn’t the case for head coach Warren Gatland.
He said: “It was an afternoon I was expecting the way we’ve trained in the week. There was a quiet confidence in the squad.
“We expected to win and win reasonably comfortably. The chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union asked me yesterday how I thought we’d go and I said I thought we’d win by 20.”
Expectations had been raised.
England 12-6 Wales
Wales were looking to emulate what they achieved in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, when they had also claimed a stunning victory at Twickenham.
Their treatment room had an extra body added to it when Halfpenny was injured in the warm-up and things were looking bleak when two Jonny May tries put England 12-0 up after 20 minutes.
But the Welsh fought hard to get themselves back in the game, with Gareth Anscombe having a try ruled out by the narrowest of margins and Scott Williams being denied by a miraculous Sam Underhill tackle.
A late Anscombe penalty put the result back in the balance, but the champions of the previous two NatWest 6 Nations held out for a narrow victory.
Gatland said after the game: “England are a quality side, there’s no doubt about that, and when you play the best teams you’ve got to take your chances or get a little bit of luck or a couple of decisions, and a few of those things went against us.”
Ireland 37-27 Wales
Wales again displayed that they were a side that don’t know when they’re beaten when they threatened a sensational comeback at the Aviva Stadium.
The big names were starting to trickle back as well, with Halfpenny, Liam Williams and Biggar all returning, but the Welsh found themselves 27-13 down with 20 minutes left.
However, after tries by Shingler and Evans, the gap in a thrilling contest was down to three points going into the final play, where Jacob Stockdale intercepted Anscombe’s pass to finally seal the win for Ireland.
A second defeat away from home effectively ended Welsh hopes of a first Championship victory since 2013, but their three games had shown the strength in depth of their squad had really grown.
Josh Navidi, yet another player to impress at flanker, said: “The second half was a good performance from the boys and it shows how we can play.
“When we got into their 22 we came away with points so we need to keep building on that and put things that went wrong right.”
Wales 38-14 Italy
North was back with a vengeance as a much-changed Wales made a successful return to Cardiff with a five-try victory over Italy, as the giant winger bagged a double.
Faletau returned to captain the side, with his fellow back rower James Davies enjoying an impressive international debut to provide Gatland with another option in that overflowing department.
But it was Parkes who was the star of the show, as his try opened the scoring after just three minutes and the centre went on to become Wales’ attacking pivot for the rest of the piece.
Gatland said of his performance: “Basically he doesn’t make any mistakes. That’s the difference between top quality players who can go through games where, for whatever reason, if things don’t go for them they don’t make any mistakes.
“It his second man-of-the-match performance for us and he has been accurate in the other games he has played.”
The bonus-point win moved the Welsh up to second in the table with just the visit of France to Principality Stadium to come.
Wales 14-13 France
In what was the final match of the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations, Wales got off to a dream start when Liam Williams scored what turned out to be their only try after four minutes.
Any type of victory would be enough for them to claim the runners-up spot, but they were pushed all the way by a French side that hit back through Gaël Fickou.
There were a couple scares to survive in the second half, not least when François Trinh-Duc missed a penalty that would have put the visitors ahead.
The Cardiff crowd held their breath, but when Shingler rounded off a superb Championship for him personally by stealing a French lineout on the final play, a third win of the campaign was finally secured.
Jones said: “The way our games went we could’ve been going for a lot more but this last game we’ve displayed the character we need going forward.
“We wanted to finish this campaign like we started it, with a win, and we’ve done that.
“There’s more depth in the regions, guys are putting their hands up and putting pressure on the squad.”