Wales are the 2021 Six Nations champions after an impressive win from Scotland over an in-form French side in Paris. France had a tough but achievable target of a bonus point victory by 21 points or more if they were to lift the trophy, but Gregor Townsend’s team put French hopes to bed on the final day of the Six Nations.
The whole of Wales was searching for its kilts in the build-up to the game, and Scotland was inadvertently playing for the Welsh as much as they were playing for themselves. The Welsh victory in the Six Nations was nearly even sweeter had it not been for a try from French fullback Brice Dulin in the 82nd minute of the game between the two sides. Many were hoping for a Grand Slam on the final day of Welsh play, however, just months ago, the Grand Slam seemed an impossibility.
Winning the Six Nations, let alone a Grand Slam, was unlikely for Wales considering the previous performances of the team under head coach Wayne Pivac. In the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup, Wales were beaten 32-9 by Ireland and were convincingly beaten by an England side who came fifth in this year’s Six Nations. Ultimately, Wales finished fifth in that competition, above only Italy, Georgia, and the Covid-19-impacted Fiji.
Understandably, after a performance like that, there were serious calls for Pivac to be removed from his position in the hope of sparking some life into a distinctly lacklustre national team. Those calls have not persisted, however, following the overall win in the Six Nations and it is clear that Pivac used that the games in the autumn for the development of his side.
The winning of the championship this year was undoubtedly a strange one. It is difficult to say that Wales dominated any of the games they won besides their 48-7 thrashing of an Italy side whose future in the competition is uncertain.
Their most convincing victory was the round three win over England by 16 points; that victory was not without controversy, however, with many suggesting that the best Welsh player was French referee Pascal Gaüzère.
Gaüzère admitted following the game that he had made two mistakes which lead to two Welsh tries after coming under significant pressure from English fans. The fact that is often ignored, however, was that Wales won by more than the 14 points that they gained from refereeing mistakes.
The luck extended beyond the referees and to mistakes made by opposition players. Wales drew three red cards over the course of the tournament, with Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony, Scotland’s Zander Fagerson and France’s Paul Willemse all seeing red. What links these three red cards is that, in each instance, the players were sent off for foul play against Welsh prop forwards. Two against Wyn Jones, a star performer for Wales across the tournament, and one against Thomas Francis.
The theme of props being unfairly targeted is a testament of Pivac’s style. The primary role of all the forwards under Pivac was to act as a nuisance for the opposition, slowing down breakdowns and being difficult to move off the ball, a job usually carried out by the backrow players.
The most important change made by Pivac seems to be a mental one. The Welsh players may have, at times, been outclassed by their opposite numbers, but they were almost never beaten in the mental aspects of the game. Pivac has built a team that wins, and a team which knows how to close out games.
Much of the credit for the victory should go to captain Alun Wyn Jones. Jones is the most capped international player in history, amassing an astonishing total of 157 international caps, nine of which being earned for the British and Irish Lions. Jones has led Wales imperviously in recent times, however his experience was often insufficient to get Wales across the line, with the side lacking in depth and in world class players.
The depth of the squad is something that has been addressed by Pivac, who has achieved strength in depth at every position and quality in the starting XV. The clearest example of this quality is overnight star winger Louis Rees-Zammit; at only 20 years old, the Gloucester player scored four tries for Wales and was electric throughout the tournament.
The suggestion that Wales won the Six Nations due to luck neglects the fact that if a team is lucky four times in a row, it is most likely not luck at all. Pivac has won over the critics he had before the tournament as Wales moved, almost quietly, to the position of Six Nations champions. Welsh fans will hope that the wins keep coming, and if this tournament is anything to go by, they will keep coming, but they are unlikely to be pretty.
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