In completing a record third Six Nations Grand Slam as Wales rugby coach with an overwhelming 25-7 victory against defending champions Ireland in Cardiff on Sunday, Warren Gatland’s contribution will live long in the hearts of Welsh fans.
His record for Wales far exceeds that of predecessors Graham Henry and Steve Hansen and his record with the British and Irish Lions, with wins over Australia and a drawn series against New Zealand, adds to his mana.
The win carries Wales one rung up the world ladder past Ireland to second behind the All Blacks who they haven’t beaten since 1953 against Bob Stuart’s men.
It was during that tour at an Edinburgh rugby function that captain Stuart earned warm applause when he took the stage and claimed Scottish heritage. However the claim also made by several other All Blacks speakers who followed wore thin with an audience who sought relief when halfback Keith Davis, a Maori, took the stage.
“You won’t believe this but I also have Scottish heritage,” Davis told them amidst audible groans. “It’s true.My great grandfather ate a Scotsman.”
Scotland have never beaten the All Blacks. Neither had Ireland until they did so in 2016 in Chicago, then backed it up with a cherished home win late last year after the tourists just scraped home against England at Twickenham.
With Gatland’s Wales having trounced England and Ireland during their unbeaten Six Nations run, a new front runner has emerged for World Cup honours in Japan this year. Or has it?
For my money any one of several teams – New Zealand, Wales, Ireland, England, South Africa and even Australia – can beat the other on their day provided their forwards set the platform.
All Black forward dominance has been challenged by other packs and the rush defence has blunted the brilliance of the backs to a considerable degree with more emphasis placed on a smart kicking game.
While Eddie Jones wasn’t happy with England’s third place in the Six Nations, it was a big improvement on their dismal fifth of the previous year and they did produce some brilliant backline play against weaker opponents Italy and Scotland.
However he had cause to bemoan a England defence that squandered a 31-0 lead in the final game 38-all draw against a brave, rejuvenated Scotland.
Meanwhile with the Crusaders the only unbeaten New Zealand team in the Super Rugby championship, All Black berths are not a foregone conclusion.
That is particularly true on the flanks where Ardie Savea, Matt Todd and Dalton Papalii look to be the main challengers for the injured Sam Cane’s No 7 jersey while Shannon Frizell, Vaea Fifita and Liam Squire battle for the No 6 berth.
Another No 6 possibility is versatile Scott Barrett whose game continues to develop. Ranked the third best lock behind Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, his high eneregy game appeals.
Barring injury, captain Kieran Read will be the No 8 and Akira Ioane could be his understudy should he continue to lift his work rate.
Not surprisingly after undergoing back surgery, the admirable Read looked jaded at the end of last season, as did the over-burdened Sam Whitelock.
With Crusader hooker Codie Taylor continuing his outstanding form of last year, it is pleasing to also see Dane Coles return to his best for the Hurricanes.
- Ivan Agnew is a an award-winning sports writer and author