The same team that beat France was named to play in Rome a fortnight later – the fit-again Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones having to be content with a place on the bench.
The match against Italy was a continuation of the France one. The scrum began to look in shape for the first time in the competition: Adam Jones and Hibbard gave Lo Cicero and Ghiraldini a torrid time allowing Gethin Jenkins to get up to all kinds of mischief against Castrogiovanni.
Again, this wasn’t eye-catching stuff, but Wales were getting into good field positions thanks to the forwards’ hard work and Biggar’s increasingly confident kicking from hand. Not pretty, but an effective, professional job.
Next, Scotland posed a challenge coming off a couple of wins. Warburton was recalled in place of Tipuric with the intention to attack the breakdown – an area in which the Scots hadn’t been putting many bodies.
Once more, this was a low-risk, pedestrian showing. If the wins in Paris and Rome were “ones for the purist”, this was one for … well, nobody, really. Two coaching patterns based on stifling the other out of existence, an incredibly pedantic turn by referee Craig Joubert that saw a world record for penalty kicks at goal, and Wales home 28-18 with even some ardent fans dozing off.
So, after an opening to the tournament that was as hapless as possible, Wales had done enough to be in a position to be challenging for the title in the final round in Cardiff.
England came into it unbeaten in five, but without impressing as much as they had in their autumn series win over New Zealand. Forced into a change at blindside flanker, due to stand-in skipper Jones’ injury, Howley opted for the long-desired-by-the-fans duo of Warburton and Tipuric.
Expecting a similar, slightly more restrictive gameplan to what we’d seen since the Ireland defeat, what transpired was eye-opening. The Welsh scrum was getting on top and winning penalties and free kicks, but it was the pace the team was playing at – the way they were hitting rucks and throwing themselves into tackles – that set it apart from what we’d seen in much of the five years this coaching group had been in charge.
The second half was, if anything, even better for the Welsh team and fans alike. From the 47th to the 50th minute Wales camped in the English 22 and sent up a lone runner at a time, getting no more than a centimetre closer each time, each attack repelled by some excellent defence. Finally, an English player wandered offside leaving Halfpenny to add the penalty kick to take them more than a score clear. For me, it was that three-minute period where the match was won.
Until then, England had seemingly contained Wales, but when the super-fit pair of Wood and Robshaw both fell off tackles during the three minutes –
– it was beginning to become obvious that Wales’ edge in the physical exchanges during the first half were beginning to take their toll.
They became Six Nations champions in consecutive years for the first time since 1979.
The biggest turnaround was the defence. From conceding 17 tries during the 8-match losing streak to not conceding since the 43rd minute of the Six Nations opener was what won them the title. There are other factors, of course, but any successful Test match nation does so off the back of their defence. That’s where it starts.
For Welsh fans now, the expectancy after the England performance will be to match that level. As an absolute minimum. In European terms, Wales have no reason to fear anybody; in global terms they still have much to prove against the southern hempisphere big three. There remains much to work on, much to improve, but they have shown that when they get it right, they’re a pretty good international team.