Wales, not Ireland, plan for Japan with glint in their eye

In Wales, the party will continue for some time.

When the dust finally settles on the country’s 2019 Grand Slam glory and the hangovers subside, Warren Gatland’s side will realise they will now enter unchartered waters.

After blowing Ireland away at a raucous Principality Stadium to clinch a first Six Nations clean sweep since 2012, the reality is Wales must now be considered genuine World Cup contenders.

Gatland’s side have always liked to tick along under the radar and despite the huge success the New Zealander has delivered over more than a decade, there they have remained on a consistent basis. Not now.

Just look at Wales’ current record. They have won their last 14 matches. They are Six Nations Grand Slam champions, Triple Crown winners, and the best team in the northern hemisphere.

Victory over Ireland also saw Wales jump above Joe Schmidt’s side and into second in World Rugby’s rankings.

Gatland is now the only head coach to have won three Six Nations Grand Slams.

“We’re well aware we’ve just put a big target on our backs before the World Cup,” said iconic Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones, surely the man who will win Six Nations player of the tournament.

Wales have undoubted quality in their ranks and the only team they need to fear right now is New Zealand.

Former Ireland supremo Gatland boasts a fine balance of youth and experience at his disposal and his players will now go to the World Cup in Japan with their confidence levels through the roof. It could yet prove a potent mix.

“It’s nice to have a bit of expectation on you. There is a lot of rugby still to be played. It’s going to be an exciting time for those involved, but it’s one step at a time,” said Wales centre Hadleigh Parkes.

“Hopefully it will be a good year for the Welsh people.”

Gatland revelled in his latest glory and rightly so. Against Ireland his team were simply too good. The paucity of Schmidt’s side must be acknowledged, but it must also not distract from the Welsh display.

Their players have had a fine tournament and Gareth Anscombe came of age on the big stage, but no one sums up Wales’ never-say-die attitude better than Jones.

Like Gatland he now has three Grand Slams of his own.

“Al has to be one of the greats. That’s pretty simple,” said Hadleigh Parkes, who scored Wales’ only try against Ireland in under two minutes from a sublime Anscombe chip.

“He’s the leader, the one you look to, and the one who steps up week in, week out. Every game he puts in a performance.

“He is a very humble man as well, that must be said. What a leader, what a captain. What a bloke. I think he probably wishes he was 21 again — he is running around like he is 21 again!”

Jones was at the heart of a brutal Welsh forward effort which left Ireland stuck in reverse, especially at scrum time. Anscombe ended the game with 20 points via a conversion and six penalties.

It was rugby heaven for those of a Welsh persuasion as their team thrived in the wet conditions with the Principality Stadium roof open.

Ireland, on the other hand, wilted on the big stage.

Wales supporters danced in the rain barely able to believe what they were seeing.

“It was probably to Ireland’s detriment that they left the roof open because we kept building the score. As soon as you start to get the scoreboard ticking over it gets hard for the other side,” Parkes said.

Gareth kicked extremely well. The forward pack was outstanding with the way they kept defending the mauls and we got a few penalties in the scrums. They did outstandingly well.

Wales’ players celebrated their Grand Slam success with a huge night out in Cardiff and today they will be honoured for their achievements with a reception at the Welsh Assembly.

“I don’t think this makes any difference to the World Cup. This group of players will run through a brick wall for you,” Gatland added.

“If we win our pool we potentially don’t face the southern hemisphere sides on the way through. I’m excited for the World Cup because you get two or three months together and you can prepare like a club side. In our previous two World Cups we were one of the fittest teams and we’ll be in great shape for this one as well.”

Wales’ latest milestone is all the more remarkable given that it has come while political chaos off the field continues to engulf Welsh rugby. Gatland’s ability to motivate, brush the sideshow away, and galvanise his players to produce the goods is truly remarkable.

There is only one thing left for him to do and that is to win a World Cup. At 8-1 for glory in Japan, Wales look a good bet.

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