World Cup Forcast: Wales' Grand Slam Momentum
Few predicted a tournament win for Wales this year let alone a third Grand Slam under Warren Gatland. But the men in red fought for the coveted shield in a brutal fashion, undeniably the most impressive side throughout this year's campaign. But what does it mean for their World Cup hopes?
“If we beat France, we’ll go on to win the Six Nations”. I’m paraphrasing, but Warren Gatland was prophetic in his belief ahead of this year’s Six Nations, highlighting an out-of-form French side as Wales’ Litmus test, a first-round decider, in his eyes, between drinking from green glass bottle neck or the six-sided silver spoils lifted in Cardiff last weekend.
Fun fact: The inside of the Six Nations trophy is coated in gold to prevent Champaign from corroding the trophy.
While success for Wales in last year's tournament was borne of a Scarlets-inspired attacking edge, this year’s Grand Slam was a product of sheer determination, organisation and both mental and physical stamina.
No player typified these characteristics more aptly than captain Alun Wyn Jones. Overlooked in favour of retired openside Sam Warburton for the skipper's armband in years gone by, Jones has gone about reminding us all of his pure rugby pedigree of late; and further highlighting Warburton’s truly historic aptitude for leadership, retaining the skipper’s armband for seven years from the age of just 22.
But on to Gatland’s squad performance as a whole throughout the tournament, and what it means for their World Cup hopes later this year in Japan; the New Zealander’s final foray as the head of Welsh rugby Wales’ performances this year have yielded plenty of pros, and at least one notable con.
A first pro could be perceived as a backhanded compliment, but Gatland's squad are safe in the knowledge that their game plan is masterfully simple. But why is this a positive? Well, with the injuries that are sure to come during the World Cup and the horrendous absentee list they sustained in 2015, well-drilled squad members should be able to step into the matchday 23 with minimal concern where continuity is concerned. It's pressure rugby and the type of game Gatland will back his entire 31-man tournament squad to execute when called upon.
A second boon comes in the depth formerly suspect positions have been fortified this year. With Jake Ball suffering no shortage of injury issues and Bath’s Luke Charteris seemingly out of favour, the true emergence of 6ft8” Ospreys lighthouse of a lock, Adam Beard, is an underrated boost for Wales. Beard's vast wingspan and tendril-like arms are the bain of all good mauling sides, and something the best locks scarcely receive the praise they are due. Alongside last year’s success story Cory Hill – a mobile second row closer to the Alun Wyn Jones mould – the Welsh engine room is in booming health. While an injury to one of the trio could be cause for some concern, the aforementioned simplicity of Wales’ blueprint should allow for minimal disruption.
The final pro we’ll touch on today is the form of the nation’s seemingly first-choice fly-half from here on out, Gareth Anscombe. While his attacking game has long been lauded by the fans and has earned him his spot ahead of Saints man Dan Biggar of late, question marks surrounded his stability when juxtaposed the former Osprelyian. But after his exploits this year, the New Zealand-born standoff’s claim to the red ten jersey seems unerring. Furthermore, the dynamic between the two fly-halves in a starter and finisher capacity has proven deadly; while shifting Anscombe to fullback with Biggar at ten has also served up ample opulence.
But there is still at least one achillies heel in Wales' game this Six Nations. While their game plan is simple to execute and in possession of a defence that the most potent attacking sides will have to put in a serious shift to break down, a lack of variation could prove challenging when faced with the All Blacks or an in-form, rampant Ireland, England or South Africa at the World Cup.
Wales’ ability to shut down Ireland and England in this year’s tournament required immense effort and the rigours of a World Cup campaign will at some point challenge their energy stores; both physiologically and psychologically.
A booming success and one deserving of a conglomeration of praise, but there is plenty to challenge them in Japan later this year.