Why Alun Wyn Jones and Warren Gatland were crucial to a Welsh triumph in the 2019 championship
The two men at the heart of Wales’ Grand Slam win
As the final whistle edged closer at the Principality Stadium, Bread of Heaven echoed around the heaving ground, growing louder and louder as a Six Nations Grand Slam looked ever more certain for Wales.
“Feed me till I want no more” is the key line in that song and it’s clear that Alun Wyn Jones’s appetite for success on the rugby pitch is not sated yet.
In the ninth minute of this match against Ireland, it looked as though the Wales captain’s day was done. He was lying on the ground receiving treatment from the medical team. Replay footage on the big screen showed the second-row in significant pain as his leg got trapped awkwardly in a maul.
Was he going to leave the pitch with an injury just as George North had done seconds earlier? That scenario looked odds-on but instead Jones rose to his feet, tested out his leg with a light jog over five metres, and then stuck it out until the final whistle.
Adrenaline will have no doubt paid a part in numbing the pain somewhat but the display he produced after such a blow was quite phenomenal and Wales went on to thump Ireland in all facets to clinch the Grand Slam – a third such clean sweep for Jones.
Yes, it was the kicking of Gareth Anscombe that was crucial to the scoreboard, but the talismanic nature of Jones’s performance played just as big a part in the triumph.
Here are a few stats to back up that assertion: more carries than any other Wales player (seven); more dominant tackles than any of his team-mates (five); 18 successful tackles – a tally beaten only by Josh Navidi, who made an incredible 28!
And remember Jones is 33 years old, one of the veterans of the modern game and now the joint fifth most-capped player in the world alongside Gethin Jenkins with 134 Test appearances for Wales and the Lions.
Eddie Jones may have quipped that Wales look tired ahead of this decisive fixture, but Jones looked wide awake. There’s plenty of life left in those long limbs. And he inspires those around him not just through his pure work-rate or how he has matured and improved over the years, but because of his stature in the game.
That takes us nicely onto his coach. Jones points to the self-belief Warren Gatland has instilled in the players – after all, the Kiwi predicted Wales would win the championship if they beat France in their opening game and so it has transpired.
“If someone is confident at the top of the tree that filters down,” says Jones. “His record speaks for itself. He’s been pretty prolific not just for Wales but the other red jersey (Lions).
“It’s easy to say on the back of a win but he’s come under pressure over the years and it takes a certain type of character to come through the mire. He’s done that.
“He’s got a bit left on his contract and he won’t take his foot off the gas yet.”
Gatland, too, has three Grand Slams to his name now – the first coach to do so – and attentions will now turn to the World Cup, after which Gatland will sign off as Wales boss.
In fairness, Gatland has been thinking about Japan 2019 for a while now, bringing in new players over the past 18 months to increase the depth of his squad – and it has paid off.
Wales have won 14 straight Tests, have leapfrogged Ireland to be ranked second in the world – a rise from tenth when Gatland took over after RWC 2007 – and so expectations will be high in Japan, where they are grouped with Australia, Fiji, Georgia and Uruguay.
“We’ve probably put a big target on our backs for a lot of other teams,” says Jones. “We’ve got to be comfortable with the pressure that comes with it.
“If we drop a game it won’t be panic stations; we’ll regroup and go again.”
It’s clear both captain and coach are hungry for more success and those two men will be at the heart of all Wales do at the World Cup. Just as they have been in this Six Nations campaign.
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