After one of the most captivating days of Six Nations rugby in memory left Wales without the silverware they craved, they will now look forward with renewed optimism. Their dismantling of Italy left them 10 points shy of champions Ireland, who took the title after an extraordinary afternoon unfolded.
The frenetic final day has proven to the three big-hitters in the northern hemisphere, that adventure pays dividends. A total of 27 tries were scored on a super Saturday, which lived up to its billing. Though Wales were left trophy-less, the fantastic finale has reawakened the country’s love for the game – as if it had ever dwindled.
Warren Gatland’s team can build on a positive campaign and look ahead to the World Cup knowing they can beat anyone on their day.
Wales endured a slow start to the tournament when they were outmuscled by England on the opening night. Despite surging to a 16-6 first half lead, Gatland’s men were stunned by a brilliant English performance after the break but the recovery came at the cost of Scotland and France, both of whom were swept aside as Gatland rang the changes. Richard Hibbard was sacrificed for the explosive Scott Baldwin, Alex Cuthbert dropped in favour of the flying Liam Williams and Jake Ball – outstanding last autumn – relegated to the bench and replaced by Luke Charteris.
That Wales performed so admirably in their final two games, overcoming the Irish 23-16 in a thrilling encounter at the Millennium Stadium, shows their ability to crush the very best when the backs are given licence to charge over the gain line. Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies remain the best in the business. If Wales’s autumn defeat of 2007 world champions South Africa laid down a marker, they surpassed that level of performance at times during this tournament.
And what a tournament. There have been some standout performances all over the pitch but none quite as heroic as Alun Wyn Jones. The veteran lock has cemented his position as one of the world’s most feared second row forwards and his dogged tackling and support play against Italy allowed the backs to run riot as Wales chased a colossal points deficit.
Although the scramble in Rome proved fruitless, due to Ireland’s superiority against a lacklustre Scotland outfit, who would have thought after the defeat to England, that Wales would come so close? It was very nearly a repeat of 2013 when Wales lost the opening game at home to Ireland, only to romp back into contention with four consecutive wins and steal the title from English clutches.
Not this time, but with the World Cup throwing the two bitter rivals in the same group, alongside Australia, it is sure to be a dogfight when they meet at Twickenham on September 26.
The heavily derided “Warrenball” tactic is still on the menu, but Saturday’s scintillating display showed Wales have more in their armoury than just big lads running through tackles and the performance of the backs against Italy was encouraging. They chased and they chased until the floodgates opened.
The world cup will most likely be a far tenser, more pragmatic affair than the bewitching rugby of “super Saturday” but for Wales, as they prepare to face former world cup winners England and Australia, caution must be thrown to the wings.
And if they can reach the latter stages, Gatland will surely be propelled to demigod status.
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