Wales near end of long march to grand slam glory as England wait in wings

first_imgRarely has the country been in greater need of a glorious Six Nations finale as a distraction from real life. Even Theresa May might benefit from putting her feet up, pouring a glass of something chilled and settling down to watch someone else try to reshape history. If the prime minister thought Westminster was lively this week, she should check out a grand slam decider in Cardiff.She might also recognise a couple of familiar themes. Should Wales mark Warren Gatland’s Six Nations farewell with a third grand slam in 11 years, at least one prominent British leader will leave this year with honour intact. Alternatively, England could still sneak up and secure an outcome that appeared to have been scuppered in Cardiff last month. Gatland, Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt are not Brexit experts but they are past masters at finding 11th-hour solutions. Why Manu Tuilagi’s Racing snub is a victory for Leicester and England Support The Guardian Read more The Breakdown: sign up for our weekly rugby union email. Eddie Jones Topics It is much simpler to concentrate on the present, rather than dwell upon the historical parallels with 2005 when Mike Ruddock’s side beat Ireland 32-20 to secure Wales’s only previous Six Nations slam in an odd-numbered year. While Rome is hardly a modern rugby fortress, it would still be some achievement to sweep the board having played three away games. Few were betting on it in Paris last month when Wales were 16-0 down at half-time to a distinctly mortal France.So can they now seal the deal? Given they are presently on a 13-Test unbeaten run, self-belief is not an obvious problem. The last 15 minutes of their victory over England are still wedged in the memory: the unbending example of Alun Wyn, Josh Adams’ towering leap, the sureness of Dan Biggar, the assurance of Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes and Liam Williams. If Ireland are to win in Cardiff for the first time since 2013, they will also have to confound Shaun Edwards’ defensive straitjacket and Gatland’s knack of getting teams spot on for these big occasions. Had Ireland not contrived to lose to England on the opening weekend, it would be Schmidt calling all the shots now. Instead the pimpled Gilbert is in Wales’s court, despite the domestic uncertainty still raging in the regions. If the red army are weary, as Jones has helpfully suggested, it is small wonder. Should Alun Wyn Jones’s frontrunners secure a grand slam, they really will have done so the hard way.The latest diversion is the proposed Nations Championship which, in theory, would incorporate the Six Nations into an annual global competition with a grand final between the top two northern and southern hemisphere sides at its apex. It is worth pausing momentarily to contemplate how Wales would be feeling if the proposal were already reality. Would a grand slam still feel as special if the ultimate goal was another seven games distant? Or what about Scotland and France, snookered by their sluggish start to the calendar year for the next nine months? Those who say the Nations Championship would have no effect on the Six Nations are not taking human nature into account. Ireland rugby union team Wales fought back from 16-0 down to win in Paris and kick-start their grand slam charge. Photograph: Yoan Valat/EPA Wales have proved mentally tougher than anyone else. It will be a surprise if they dissolve now Share on Twitter Facebook Scotland rugby union team Share on Pinterest features There will actually be two shiny Six Nations trophies on parade, with a replica avoiding any need for a London-bound helicopter should Wales lose. It is just as well given a foul weather forecast that could dilute the spectacle if not the intensity. England’s players certainly do not need Will Carling, now part of their backroom staff, to tell them how much a Six Nations title would mean. “There’s no secret,” said Jones. “We’re not playing Mars or Pluto, we’re playing Scotland. They’ve got passion and play the game a certain way; we’ve got passion about playing for England. It’ll be about which side comes out with the most intensity and desire and that’ll be us. If we create momentum around the ruck I’d hate to be one of those Scottish backs.”Perhaps it has not quite been the consistently vintage tournament everyone craved but a dramatic final act still awaits. Soon we will know which European nation will go to this autumn’s World Cup as first among equals, although Jones cautions that Six Nations glory is not an automatic passport to global supremacy.“The World Cup is going to be a mix of what’s happened in the Six Nations and what’s going to happen in the Rugby Championship, which is traditionally looser,” he said. “I think the Six Nations has been good quality. The toughness and intensity of the rugby has been outstanding.”Over the past seven weeks, rain or shine, Wales have so far proved mentally tougher than anyone else and it will be a surprise if they dissolve now. Gatland predicted this might be Wales’ year before the tournament even began and these days he is right about pretty much everything. … we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading and supporting The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever before. And unlike many new organisations, we have chosen an approach that allows us to keep our journalism accessible to all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford. But we need your ongoing support to keep working as we do.The Guardian will engage with the most critical issues of our time – from the escalating climate catastrophe to widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. At a time when factual information is a necessity, we believe that each of us, around the world, deserves access to accurate reporting with integrity at its heart.Our editorial independence means we set our own agenda and voice our own opinions. Guardian journalism is free from commercial and political bias and not influenced by billionaire owners or shareholders. This means we can give a voice to those less heard, explore where others turn away, and rigorously challenge those in power.We need your support to keep delivering quality journalism, to maintain our openness and to protect our precious independence. Every reader contribution, big or small, is so valuable. Support The Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you. Share via Email Pinterest Warren Gatland ready to ride Wales’ emotional wave for grand slam finale Twitter England rugby union team Share on Messenger Reuse this content Six Nations 2019 Read more Warren Gatland Since you’re here… Wales rugby union team There is every chance, however, that it could be agonisingly close. The opposing camps know each other almost too well: Edwards and Andy Farrell go way back to Wigan days, Schmidt and Gatland grew up within 200 miles of each other on New Zealand’s North Island. While Schmidt – also awaiting his last Six Nations game as Ireland coach – has never conquered Cardiff, Gatland coached many of his players on the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour. Should Johnny Sexton kick a winning drop-goal to deny Gatland a valedictory slam, irony’s cup will truly overfloweth.Another key figure could be Tadhg Beirne, so good for the Scarlets last season and now starting in Ireland’s second row. If there is one player who will cause expectant Welsh fans to sup nervously on their pre-match pints it is Beirne the bolter, such an energising presence for every team he represents. They may also be wary of the Australian referee, Angus Gardner, who has presided over three previous Six Nations games involving Ireland and has yet to see them lose. A further Irish win this time would duly clear the way for the ultimate Welsh nightmare. England have amassed 101 points in their last two home games and the odds on them losing to a depleted Scotland team who are without a win at Twickenham since 1983 are roughly on a par with Frankie Boyle becoming foreign secretary. If reclaiming the Calcutta Cup and avenging last year’s Murrayfield defeat is England’s first objective, being asked to polish the Six Nations trophy as well will not be a hardship. Share on Facebook Ugo Monye Share on WhatsApp Share on LinkedInlast_img

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