This Welsh side came of age on Sunday at the Aviva stadium. True, their RWC adventures placed them firmly on the radar screen of world rugby. But there were the doubters who claimed they had seen it all before only for the dragons to revert to type before long. There were those who said that Wales had in fact underperformed at the World Cup. How could the hype and excitement be justified when they won 4 games, but managed to lose 3?
However, there were indications in New Zealand that things were different this time. The collective ambition, fitness, discipline, humility and (despite its youth) maturity of the group strongly indicated that rugby in the valleys was on the rise.
Although the margin of victory was narrow in Dublin on Sunday, Wales were undoubtedly the deserved winners. The Welsh backs although on average 2 years younger than the hosts, were 9kg per man heavier. They ran good lines, knew they could threaten Ireland through the middle or on the wings and there were outstanding contributions from George North, Jonathan Davies and Mike Phillips.
At 6’4” and 104kg, North is a colossus. At 19 years of age and the youngest man on the field he made a remarkable contribution. He will have benefitted from the RWC experience and there is every reason to believe that he will be around for a few more to come.
The growing maturity of Wales was shown by how the team responded to Sam Warburton’s departure at half time. While Bradley Davis showed that the red mist can still challenge some, the remainder of the team dug deep and won a game that in previous years they would have lost. Ryan Jones’ deserves credit for leading the team so ably for the 2nd half. In Matthew Rees, one of a number of players unavailable on Sunday due to injury, Wales have another experienced leader to call on.
Ireland very much looks like a team in need of rebuilding. They badly missed O’Driscoll but they will have to get used to life without him. England have started to rebuild and got the win they needed. There is every reason to believe that, in time, they will again be a force to be reckoned with. Scotland is a cause for concern and their supporters have been patient but are now demanding rapid improvement or change.
Wales are a couple of years ahead of England and the outlook is both promising and exciting. World rugby will be a much better place with Wales offering serious challenges to the southern hemisphere power houses. A 3 test series in Australia is June will provide an opportunity to gauge progress. It will also be ideal preparation for next year’s Lions tour, which looks likely to have a very strong Welsh influence.
The renaissance in Welsh rugby leaves some questions unanswered though. Why have the Welsh clubs failed to shine in the Heineken Cup? Is Gatland’s coaching team the best in the business now that the All Blacks have a new regime? Does the use of Polish cryotherapy chambers really make a difference to performance? Why have Wales fortunes improved so dramatically? Your opinions would be welcome.