As the man on the radio commentating on Andy Murray’s Wimbledon win might have said: “It seems ludicrous to say it! Wales are going for a third Six Nations title in a row!” The Welsh game domestically is falling apart amid bitter arguments over how it should be run, yet the national team stand proud and popular, with Leigh Halfpenny and friends penning entries in the history books to erase sad memories of the previous generation plundered by rugby league who were barely able to win a match in the old Five Nations. Not world-beaters, by any means, but in Six Nations terms worthy successors at long last to the magnificent forebears of the 1960s and ’70s.
Wales are the bookmakers’ favourites to win the Championship, narrowly ahead of England and France despite the tempting statistic that the French have taken the title in the year that followed each of the last four Lions tours (1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010).
The Welsh would be the first team to perform a Six Nations “three-peat”, although they and others from England, France and Scotland have experienced similar sequences down the decades when outright wins were mingled with shared titles before points difference was used as a tie-breaker.
In any case, following Six Nations form can put you in the funny farm. Scotland finished third last year and Italy won two matches, at home to France and Ireland. The French took the biscuit by taking the wooden spoon. More recently the autumn internationals involving our annoyingly fine friends from the south suggested we will be watching a bunch of nearly men in the next eight weeks.
England and Ireland almost beat New Zealand; Wales almost beat Australia (they were denied during their frantic last attack by a knock-on by the otherwise heroic Alun Wyn Jones, who on Friday bucked the trend of Halfpenny and others leaving for French or English clubs by re-signing for the Ospreys); France almost went through a calendar year with one measly win until they knocked over Tonga in Le Havre.
Maybe the French were hardened in adversity? No one else took on the mighty All Blacks four times in 2013. Okay, so France lost the lot, but Toulouse battered England’s top club Saracens to bits a couple of weeks ago, so Yannick Nyanga and Louis Picamoles in the back row, and Yoann Huget and Maxime Médard in the back three need have no inferiority complex among half-a-dozen possible Toulousain starters for France against England in their Six Nations opener in Paris next Saturday evening.
The last time Wales entered a Championship as back-to-back winners was 1980, and they went down in shame, in a blood-spattered loss at Twickenham. The Grand Slam went to England who, after second-place finishes in 2012 and 2013, may only consider a clean sweep this time as proper progress.
There are many reasons why Wales have won the title four times in nine years, with Slams in 2005, 2008 and 2012, and Warren Gatland, coach since ’08, is one of them. Another is the scrum-half throughout Gatland’s tenure, Mike Phillips.
“You need luck, of course, but winning the Championship is about a work ethic,” said Phillips, the former Osprey who was off-loaded by Bayonne to Racing Métro earlier this season, after an allegation he strongly denies of turning up to a video-analysis session drunk. “It’s playing for the team and being there for each other, working hard and talent as well – a bit of everything.”
England under Stuart Lancaster have not lost in eight meetings with France, Scotland, Ireland and Italy but not won in two with the Welsh. The English cultural revolution – a justifiable insistence that players take wearing the white jersey seriously – famously hit a red roadblock when they were smashed 30-3 in Cardiff last March. There could be tumultuous scenes at Twickenham for the potentially pivotal rematch on the Six Nations’ penultimate weekend (the teams will also collide there in the 2015 World Cup).
Phillips’ first outing under Gatland was Wales’s epoch-making victory at England’s headquarters in 2008. “I scored the winning try and it was a highlight of my career,” said Phillips. “I’ll never forget that feeling, running back to receive the kick-off, it was almost surreal – the first time we’d beaten England in Twickenham for 20 years. And we went on to win the Grand Slam.
“I am sure it helped my cause with Warren, to make a good first impression in his mind. He got to know my character, he knows my work ethic, he knows what I’m all about. He’s been good to me and I like to think I’ve been good to him as well. We get on, I can have a bit of banter with him and I can be myself, which is important. When you’re on the pitch you’ve got to express yourself and be yourself.”
Phillips, with his size and stature, suits Wales’s style, defending in the line with the wings up hard and the sweeping Halfpenny providing the overview. ‘‘If I’m making tackles, it leaves the back row fresher to hit harder, and the centres to do their stuff,” said Phillips.
It is a worry that those two departments may be missing Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies at the outset, and lock Ian Evans is out for the duration, although Justin Tipuric and Scott Williams are much better than make-weights. “I think England during the autumn were outstanding,” said Phillips. “The back row is giving them a lot of go-forward and that’s what the game’s about. Billy Vunipola was an impressive addition. We’re not looking past Italy as our first match in Cardiff. They’re no mugs, they’re tremendously physical and throw everything at us. The first 20 minutes in particular, we have to be accurate. The first game is such an important one to get off to a good start.”
England have half an eye on development for the World Cup and while the forwards are in the nick to end 10 Slam-less years, there are questions over the backs. Ireland, guided by the outstanding Johnny Sexton, want to do justice to Brian O’Driscoll’s farewell Championship, even if the eminent centre bombed out in Italy last year with a yellow card. If France do not improve, can their coach Philippe Saint-André keep his job? Fear factor or the much-talked-about x-factor? If anything is ludicrous, it is making a firm Six Nations prediction, but what the hell. No one will win a Slam, but Wales will pip England or Ireland on points difference.
Mike Phillips on Warren Gatland
Warren has been good to me and I like to think I’ve been good to him as well. I can be myself, which is important