Wales fans are enjoying a new golden generation
The heroes of the 1970s will always be revered but Wales fans are enjoying a new golden generation – Wayne Pivac’s men have their sights set on a fifth clean sweep of the Six Nations era
- Wales could secure a fifth clean sweep of the Six Nations era by beating France
- Pivac has guided his side to victories against Ireland, Scotland, England and Italy
- Wales will return to fourth in the world with win in Paris, after being ninth in 2020
Wales’ golden generation go to Paris in search of yet another Grand Slam in the Six Nations, a competition they have swept like no one else.
A fifth Grand Slam would represent more than double England and Ireland’s combined total and push them two beyond the French, who have not won one since 2010.
Wales ride the rollercoaster – with 12 bottom-three finishes in 21 Six Nations tournaments too – but when they are up they are up.
Wales celebrate their Grand Slam success in 2019 at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff
England might have won more titles, but whatever the result at the Stade de France this Saturday the Welsh have a canny knack of cracking this tournament from start to finish.
Here Sportsmail delves into their new gilded era – rivalling only the revered 1970s legends – now into a 16th season of sustained success.
The first thing to note – which seems a strange start – is that the Welsh system is incredibly flawed, split, parochial and maligned.
It has not produced successful regional teams, is not envied as a whole, and there have been various attempts to rip it up completely for years.
But for some reason, for the national team, it works. While the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) choose to focus on their four regions and the national side, tailoring support with the ambitions of each, many hate the fact that ‘Team Wales’ dominate the scene.
Those at the top regret that the regions continue to struggle, but realism plays a part.
Wales could secure a fifth clean sweep of the Six Nations era by beating France on Saturday
‘The public sometimes criticise our focus on the national team but for a small country, without the success of the national team we wouldn’t be able to do anything,’ Gareth Davies, the WRU chairman between 2014 and 2020 told Sportsmail.
‘I regret in some ways, that we couldn’t patch that all up with regional success.
‘What Martyn Phillips (former CEO) and I tried to do is make the professional rugby about five teams. Wales and the regions.
‘God, though, people are so parochial, it’s so tribal it felt impossible to do. It won’t be impossible – it will be done at some point.
‘Pre-2005 Grand Slam, and a bit after that, selling out the stadium became a priority.
‘If we can’t sell out then it gives us a financial problem. In the autumn you sometimes get 60,000 people as opposed to 75,000. At £80 a ticket that’s more than £1million you’re losing or gaining each time.
‘While it has been a success on the field there has been great work done by the national team to sell out the stadium to get the money to fund everything.’
Of course, that is in a pre-Covid world. In recent years – built on the early successes of the Warren Gatland era – Wales have honed their goals and heavily incentivised top players.
The over-arching goal from meetings a few years back was for Wales to consistently be a top four nation in the world rankings. Payment structures are linked to whether they are or not.
‘That was quite a driver for the guys,’ adds Davies.
‘A lot of people would say “we want to be number 1 in the world all the time” – and we were for a couple of weeks in 2019! – but really, that’s unrealistic, even for New Zealand.’
Wales will return to fourth in the world with win in Paris, having risen from ninth in 2020
Of course they have not always been there. Wales will return to fourth if they win on Saturday, having risen from a lowly ninth after their terrible 2020.
While internal squabbling is a perennial problem that halts further progress, things are way more joined up these days.
With the top 38 Welsh players centrally controlled, managed and paid according to their experience there is little doubt now that – unlike in England and France – the WRU is in charge of home-based talent.
‘It’s tough on the regions,’ former Welsh centre Tom Shanklin says.
‘In England and France the players play most weeks. For Wales, internationally it’s brilliant as you’re able to rest players, communicate with clubs, look after players, limit the amount they train and play and properly cocoon them for international rugby.
‘It’s not looking great for the regions at the moment – they just get totally dominated by the Irish.
‘But it’s great for international rugby to be able to ring a region and say “we want to rest a player, he’s played too much, we’ve looked at his stats” and they have that pull.’
That does not work for the likes of Dan Biggar, Taulupe Faletau, Callum Sheedy and Louis Rees-Zammit who have to flit between English clubs and the Welsh side during tournaments.
But it was main driver behind the 60-cap rule, introduced in 2017, which precluded players who had fewer caps than that from representing Wales.
It has brought George North, Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny, Josh Adams, Tomas Francis, Johnny Williams, Will Rowlands, Rhys Carré, Rhys Webb and Ross Moriarty either back home, or to the regions for the first time, under the big Welsh umbrella – and prevented many more from leaving.
‘I don’t care what the regions say, the players want to play for Wales above anything,’ comments Davies.
There is more joined-up thinking too. At their state-of-the-art Vale of Glamorgan base WRU analysts and staff have access to live GPS numbers and statistics on their player pool, shared with them by the regions – allowing them to track training load and playing form.
The Rugby Management Board meets fortnightly to talk ideas – and plans are already afoot for World Cups hence.
‘What we were working on in the last few months of my time was “who is the next Alun Wyn Jones and Jonathan Davies?”’ said Davies who left the WRU last November.
‘All that work goes on behind the scenes that people don’t see. We have charts with players pencilled in for the 2027 World Cup.
‘Some of these guys aren’t even playing senior rugby yet. It doesn’t happen by accident. No doubt other countries are doing that – but when you see 20 names on a chart for 2027, it shows what support there is in place.
‘They won’t all make it, but many will.’
Add to that the Exiles programme – which leans cleverly on the English club and academy system, and this Six Nations alone has in different ways provided Callum Sheedy, Nick Tompkins, Will Rowlands and Johnny Williams and Louis Rees-Zammit, it is a functioning plan.
Part of the WRU until last October, three-time Grand Slam winning back-row Ryan Jones says: ‘I think it’s testament to the WRU, to Welsh rugby, to the society here, that a relatively small nation has continually delivered.’
The system is a long way from perfect, but somehow it works.
The WRU is in charge of home-based talent with the top 38 Welsh players centrally controlled
IS it the chicken or the egg? Was this group a product of nature or nurture?
The fact is that Wales enjoyed an extraordinary cohort of talented men all coming through simultaneously.
In many ways they have papered over gaping cracks in the Welsh system through their skill, bloody minded attitude and will to win.
Between 2008 and 2011 Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny, Jonathan Davies, Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau all made their Welsh debuts. Sam Warburton – his bow in 2009 – would still be with them too, if his body had not given in.
That incredible group filtered into a side populated with those who had already helped Wales turn a corner. Alun Wyn Jones was there from 2007, with Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts icons of a similar era who have now moved on.
They could tell this lot were special early.
‘We used to train against them in 2008 and 2009,’ reveals Shanklin, whose last Test was in 2010.
‘Dan Biggar, Jon Davies, Leigh Halfpenny… they used to cause so much carnage! They’d score so many tries against us and we’d look around and go “what’s going on here? We should be dominating this team!”
‘You sort of knew. You could hear the strength and conditioning coaches talking about this centre, how he was top in all the charts of power-output and things in the gym.
‘I thought “he’s just going to be a robot” and then you see him playing, find out he’s called Jon Davies… he’s still producing the goods now!’
While only the captain since Warburton left in 2016, Alun Wyn Jones has led them all.
His old Ospreys and Wales team mate Ryan Jones says: ‘He probably hasn’t changed too much since he came on the scene. He was unique then.
‘He hasn’t necessarily conformed either – probably ahead of his time, demanding more of himself, the environment, of others, when not many were.
‘He maximised his physical and psychological skillset.
‘His USP is around leadership and attention to detail. His game is based on core skills, fundamentals. Gats and Paul O’Connell talked about being the best at the stuff that requires no talent. Alun Wyn is that.
‘He has this unique leadership ability not only to do and show, but to tell as well.
‘There is a really strong core to this Welsh squad. You worry about how on earth they’re ever going to replace that.’
It is a truism that due to the small size of the player pool, Wales have to persevere longer with their players, unable to discard them like the English or French might, without bountiful options beyond.
But by luck or design, the players have made their era special.
Wayne Pivac has guided Wales to victories over over Ireland, Scotland, England and Italy
And so have the coaches. You can have a system trying to maximise national glory packed with stars but the man at the top has to make it work.
More than anyone else Warren Gatland did for Wales. He got it. He knew how to manage, motivate, delegate, make Wales fit and fired up for the biggest games, especially against northern hemisphere rivals.
His 11-year reign was characterised by making the Welsh national team club-like – one that wanted for nothing, valued family and togetherness as well as hard work and winning.
‘Warren was clearly the boss,’ says Davies.
‘Players got on with him, but there was that distance. He knew what he wanted and knew how to get it. They were never short, shall we say? He pushed that.’
Shanklin, who played under Gatland between 2008 and 2010 adds: ‘He was the rock and the stability behind the squad.
‘Players come in and out but you still have one voice, one vision. He was very good at breaking down things to make it simple for us to understand, giving us a blueprint for how he wanted us to play.
‘He’s been vital for a lot of what we’re seeing today – a lot of the player development, the winning mentality, attitude, professionalism that Wales were lacking before.
‘He has been pivotal in that all the way through – the constant voice that stayed all the way through from 2008 to 2019.’
And largely his backroom staff did too, Rob Howley, Shaun Edwards, Neil Jenkins, Robin McBryde, Paul ‘Bobby’ Stridgeon – the beloved motivator and fitness guru – were all long-term buddies.
Jenkins and Stridgeon stayed for Wayne Pivac’s era, along with strength and conditioning expert, the former hooker Huw Bennett, and a number of others like Dr Geoff Davies, Dr Prav Mathema, physio Mark ‘Carcass’ Davies, bag-man John Rowlands, nutritionist Jon Williams and analyst Marc Kinnaird.
Succession planning was vital for Wales when Gatland left. They started the process to find his replacement two years out, whittled the list down to a dozen candidates and set key markers.
‘We had things such as – you have got to have won something,’ ex-chairman Davies who helped appoint Pivac.
‘If you hadn’t won anything at club, regional, provincial level then you’re unlikely to win anything at international level.
‘I didn’t interfere much, but on this element I did – selection was critical to me. Successful coaches make tough decisions, and they are mostly around selection.’
It looks as though Wales have theirs right. Some said that with Pivac in charge of Wales the floor was lower, but the ceiling higher. Are we seeing that with his first two years?
‘I am seeing a different style of play – we’re scoring tries, finishing off chances, playing a wider game, offloading more, looking more dangerous, less pragmatic,’ analyses Shanklin.
‘All of these things have come from Wayne Pivac and attack coach Stephen Jones.’
Davies says of the former policeman he appointed: ‘He has a seemingly softer approach to Warren, but I tell you he’s got a firm underbelly.’
Even when everything else clicks into place, everyone needs luck. A red card for each of Ireland and Scotland help set Wales on their way this year.
In 2019 if Yoann Huget had not thrown a ball over his own line for George North to pounce on in the opening French game, there would be no Grand Slam that year.
Away from the individual games themselves, Davies thinks there are other powers at play in all this too.
‘A lot of it goes back to what rugby means in Wales,’ he says.
‘There’s always a raging debate about what the national sport is – more people play football and all that – but in terms of what is important to the nation, there’s no comparison.
‘Yes, more people play football, but also the leading Welsh stars don’t play in Wales. That’s probably still it too – people empathise and respond to the rugby players. They see Alun Wyn walking round his home town in Swansea, these guys are part of Wales.
‘First of all that’s important. It doesn’t win games of course, but it shows the significance of the game.
‘The players understand that. It’s a bit arrogant to say, I suppose, but we do produce good rugby players too, naturally talented players, I think more than any other country bar New Zealand.
‘There’s an innate natural ability among our young players… look at Ioan Lloyd at Bristol, Kieran Hardy, they’re really good footballers.’
Wales do not have a monopoly on passion – but it helps sometimes that everyone cares so much.
The Welsh will always revere their heroes of the 1970s. Sir Gareth Edwards, Barry John, JPR Williams, JJ Williams, Mervyn Davies, Gerald Davies, Phil Bennett – the names roll off the tongue.
But it is about time this current crop were given blue-plaque status too. Their Grand Slam success surpasses the greats of the past, their longevity is extraordinary, their impact enormous and often under-valued.
‘One of the last great bastions in sport is about owning expectation, striving and celebrating what you’ve got,’ Ryan Jones says.
‘In British culture there are connotations of arrogance with it. It can be a real asset though – exuding confidence and belief. Sometimes that’s worth three, six points. That’s what I think this team has been able to do.
‘Getting to the top is one thing, but staying there repeatedly is the real magic. This generation of players has been really successful. The expectation is there now – “are we going to win a Grand Slam?” after one game!
‘Warren Gatland oversaw an amazing period in Welsh rugby. His 12 years were incredible. But still we weren’t happy! The way we played wasn’t good enough, not like the 1970s, we’d lose one game and he had to go and all this stuff. We’ve got short memories in sport, until it has passed and we’re regaling stories of old.
‘I hope they’re held in the same esteem as others. They deserve to. They’ve done it in a time that is more competitive than it has ever been, under enormous scrutiny like no other.
‘Within their own right they deserve to a man to be recognised for their contribution to Welsh and Six Nations rugby.’
And Shanklin agrees: ‘It’ll be an age thing. For me the 70s players are still up there for me. My dad Jim played in the 70s, and you hear stories about it, grow up listening to them.
‘But the new generation of today might look back and think “wow we were lucky back then to have these players”.
‘To win four Grand Slams – maybe a fifth – since 2005… the 1970s team were earmarked as the best in the world and won three.
‘The 70s will always have that special crop, but I certainly think younger men and women of today might look back in 30 years’ time and think this crop gave them 20 years of special players.’
Davies concludes: ‘2005 to 2021 – that’s a long stretch. The guys will live on.’
Whatever happens in Paris, so they should.
Share this article
Source: Read Full Article