November the month to remember for Welsh rugby
With the dominance of Ireland, the transformation of Scotland and the sudden decline in Eddie Jones England, few could be blamed for not having a laser like focus on the developments in Welsh rugby; what difference a month makes.
As the final leaves of Autumn fall and descend into a bitter, international-less rugby winter, we review all four home nations November outings, as well as the three Southern hemisphere giants, and consider just what implications November 2018 might have bestowed upon the world leading heptad. The first incumbents of our mini series are the men of Wales. On paper, a tough but not impossible schedule ended in the most satisfying way possible. Four games. Four wins. Not to mention a newfound defensive fortitude.
Heading into the autumn, Welsh rugby was expected to be the last topic of conversation. With the dominance of Ireland, the transformation of Scotland and the sudden decline in Eddie Jones England, few could be blamed for not having a laser like focus on the developments in Welsh rugby; what difference a month makes.
After a confident and efficient dispatching of the aforementioned Scots, Australia came into the Millennium with a point to prove. A team that has enjoyed so much dominance over Wales for so long had to get a win to assert themselves kings of Cardiff once more. The game was edgy, scrappy, low on quality if truth be told, but it was the platform for Welsh rugby to finally overcome it's biggest mental blockade, squeaking through by three points in a victory that probably felt it was ten years in the making.
Many have tried and failed in the conquest, and while it's only one game, the significance of finally solving their most arduous of puzzles, should not be underplayed.
Elation and relief were the two themes running down St Mary Street post Australia, and why not? Wales had not only broken the ball and chain of Aussie ownership, they'd made a statement with immaculate timing. Australia, the ultimate Welsh mental blockade, primed to square off for top spot in Pool D next year, finally giving the gold and green some questions of their own. It wasn't just the victory itself; the manner of it probably pleased Gatland more. Only six points conceded to a team with some of the most highly skilled individuals alive. Surviving the relentless machine of Pocock and his one man crusade to win every contestable ball. The breathing brick wall of Justin Tipuric with his twenty tackles, the unpredictable, springing eighty metre jaunts of the elusive Liam Williams. It was a performance that produced everything but a try, not that Gatland would be too concerned, victory would have tasted so sweet.
Week three and a different test. Multiple changes were made for the visit of Tonga, the pacific island strapped of cash and on a downward trend, this was the chance for Wales to make up for points not garnered the week prior. They obliged with seventy-six. It was a game flush with scores, Liam Williams helping himself to two, a real one to watch out for in the upcoming 6 Nations, especially after his performance in the next outing.
South Africa were the visitors next, and so much was on the line. The closest the nation had ever been to completing a clean sweep in Autumn internationals, if Welsh rugby has taught us anything over the years, it's to get excited, very excited, over excited, then disappointed. This group weren’t interested in following that same old tired script.
A magnificent twenty points to eleven, and with it a comprehensive squatting of the hottest team on the planet. South Africa were coming in after a fantastic year, boasting the rarest of feats amongst their accolades, a win in New Zealand. A determined and professional team performance was led by the age defying Alun Wyn Jones. The thirty three year old British and Irish Lion continues to defy time, with the most carries amongst all players on the pitch in Cardiff, and a solid eleven tackles, none missed, on a day only bettered in defence by a man a smidge younger Ellis Jenkins. His fifth start in a Welsh jersey will be fondly remembered not only for the win, but his mammoth performance in 15 tackles and the assist for Tomas Francis' opening try.
Temptation was finally conceded too in throwing Liam Williams into the spot Leigh Halfpenny has held for so long it's hard to remember any Welsh fullback existing prior to that. Jokes aside, Williams came in and was phenomenal, bagging another try and looking assured defensively in the final win of the month. What's more, Dan Biggar has some Gareth Anscombe shaped competition, however, his sickeningly effortless final ten minutes against South Africa might just make that gap a little bit wider, for now.
Wales bowed out of November with four from four, breaking the most hideous of losing streaks, their longest winning run in nineteen years, and a new earned respect. The individual performances of AWJ, Tipuric, Jenkins and Jonathan Davies were a joy to behold, and it gives Wales a huge boost heading into a World Cup the feels very open. Only England and Ireland eluded Wales in their quest for victories in 2018, but with both coming up in on home turf this spring, there's strong cause to believe that won't last too much longer.
It's hard to criticise, and even harder when there's no reason too, the only negative could be Wales didn't show enough attacking threat in the Australia bout, however, that would be overly critical, and the result that day was definitely more important than the performance. The further and final piece of good news was the nation got through the whole tournament largely unscathed with no major injuries, if Wales can maintain this scintillating form heading into the 6 nations, only a fool would rule them out.
Overcoming their biggest challenge, breaking all kind of records, and holding the mental edge over their opponents in Pool D, it's difficult to assess what could have gone better for Wales in November 2018. No longer the underdog, no longer the inconsistent Welsh, this team feels like it's here to stay, and who'd rule them out of being involved on the 2nd November at the Yokohama Stadium? Not this author.