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Who will be the King in the North in 2019?

Johnny Sexton runs at Wales duo Justin Tipuric and Wyn Jones during last year's Six Nations. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Expert
29th January, 2019
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3151 Reads

Graham Henry looked down from his hotel bedroom balcony in Edinburgh’s plush Balmoral Hotel. Alongside him, the stone Victorian gargoyles snarled and spat, a warning to the unwary.

Below, a tide of thousands – supporters in red and white, and blue and white – ebbed and flowed down Princes Street.

Tartan bonnets and kilts mixed easily with giant waving daffodils and leeks, and the press of bodies was even greater when ‘Ted’ looked over towards Edinburgh’s Waverley station. A huge body of humanity heaved and groaned on the platforms, struggling to make progress.

The skirl of the bagpipes blended spontaneously with deep-voiced choirs from the Valleys. It was Scotland versus Wales, and Graham Henry’s first experience of the (then) Five Nations tournament back in 1999.

To read about it, or hear the stories from other people was one thing, to experience it first-hand was quite another.

“Standing there, I realised that I had underestimated the sheer tribal force of the tournament.

“The occasions were massive, and the feeling they engendered in the Celtic countries in particular, was far greater than anything I’d known in the Southern Hemisphere.”

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It was a living history lesson for Ted, standing on that balcony. He looked up briefly up at the sharp crag which held Edinburgh Castle so precariously in place, shaking off the magnitude of the impression before returning to his coaching whiteboard. The endless river of fans flowed past, and they did not notice.

The Five Nations tournament was, and still is, a raucous celebration of tribal rivalries, a battleground which for a few weeks in the late winter and early spring-time, ties England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France together with a lovers’ knot.

It took Graham Henry two lost matches against Scotland and Ireland to get the motivational pitch exactly right. The appeal changed from the emotions (which needed no inflaming) to the ‘top three inches’ and the successful management of that passion.

The result was Wales’ first win in Paris in 24 years:

That was the start of an 11-match unbeaten run for the Welsh team.

Warren Gatland’s charges are on a similar roll now, having won nine consecutive matches since their defeat by Ireland last February. For the first time in their history, Wales swept through their autumn series of games unbeaten, conquering the Southern Hemisphere hilltops of Australia and South Africa along the way.

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While England are talking a good game, and Ireland are still basking in the afterglow of their victory over New Zealand and the most successful season in their professional history, it is Wales who are the dark horses for the 2019 Six Nations.

Even though Wales have to play three of their five games away from home, the cards have fallen out in their favour, because their two main rivals will both have to visit the Principality Stadium. Warren Gatland will be licking his lips at the prospect of tipping up first England, and then Ireland in the Six Nations finale on 16 March.

Warren Gatland British and Irish Lions Rugby Union 2017

He’s coached the Lions on multiple tours, but can Warren Gatland guide Wales to a shock Six Nations win? (AAP Image/David Rowland)

Wales have developed a nasty habit of upsetting the applecart in the odd-numbered years featuring these two home games. Back in 2015, they derailed the Irish march to a likely Grand Slam with a win in the fourth round. A couple of years before that they had stopped an English whitewash, built on the back of their 2012 autumn victory over the All Blacks, in the final match of the championship, and pinched it themselves with an emphatic 30-3 win.

One of the features in common between the Welsh team of 2013 and the 2018 version is an increasing willingness to select twin opensides in the back row. In 2013, it was Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric against England, more recently it was Tipuric and Ellis Jenkins against South Africa.

An outstanding crop of number sevens including Josh Navidi, Ollie Griffiths, James Davies, Aaron Wainwright and Wasps’ Thomas Young has persuaded the Welsh coaching group to start games with more than one of them on the field at the same time.

In the final match of 2018 against South Africa, all three of Tipuric, Jenkins and Wainwright ended up playing together for the major portion of the match after Ross Moriarty’s 12th-minute injury. None of them are more than 6 foot 2 and 105 kilos.

It was Tipuric (in the blue hat) and Warburton who finally put paid to England’s Grand Slam ambitions in the second half of the 2013 showpiece:

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Warburton made the first break clean up the middle of the field, but it is Tipuric’s dexterity with the ball in the 13 channel that really makes you sit up and take notice. He has the speed to beat the cover and commit the last defender before delivering a perfect offload for Alex Cuthbert to score.

It is an excellent example of what two sevens can give you in attack – two link men, with one able to play further out as an extra centre:

tipuric attacking analysis

Number 6 Jenkins is playing ‘in pod’ outside the main Welsh distributor Gareth Anscombe. Justin Tipuric is situated in between centre Hadleigh Parkes and left winger Josh Adams (out of shot) to link the attack to the far touchline.

In the event, Tipuric’s skills were not required:

No need to bully your way across the gain-line when you can carry the ball in two hands and create doubt in the minds of the defenders with the threat to pass – the small, skilful man’s way.

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But the heart of the Welsh renaissance in 2018 is defence, defence which has seen them concede a miserly average of 13 points per game on their unbeaten run. Wales conceded only one try to the Bokke and none at all to the Wallabies.

At the heart of the heart of that defence were the twin opensides, Jenkins and Tipuric:

Tipuric has just slowed down Springbok ball at the previous ruck, and South Africa have no respite when they spin the ball away from him in the direction of Jenkins. There are threats to the ball on both sides of the field.

Jenkins and Tipuric were at the centre of a massive goal-line stand which prevented a Springbok score just before half-time.

First it was Jenkins, getting an arm under the ball as Jesse Kriel was looking to place it in-goal:

tipuric defensive analysis

Then it was Jenkins and Tipuric, combining to cut Pieter-Steph Du Toit in half as the Bokke big man was looking to boulder his way over from short range:

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Finally, it was Jenkins, claiming the turnover after Tipuric hammered him into the defensive breakdown like a nail. That was a nail in the coffin of South African morale at a critical moment:

The faster and looser the game became in the second period, the more the Welsh duo thrived, and their presence added tangible value to the Welsh kick/chase game:

After Willie le Roux throws the ball infield off a Welsh exit kick, the ball is in the hands of South Africa’s most dangerous runner, Cheslin Kolbe. But Tipuric and Jenkins immediately plug all the gaps on chase and spot the chance to execute a perfect choke tackle on the Springbok wingman.

The defining moment of the game arrived in the 68th minute, with Tipuric and Jenkins chasing down a kick by Dan Biggar:

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Tipuric is first up, Jenkins is next on the scene, then Aaron Wainwright arrives to make a clean sweep for the Welsh back row. No one from the monster Springbok back row is anywhere in sight as the turnover is won.

Summary
Ireland will rightly go into the 2019 Six Nations as favourites after the win over the All Blacks in November capped off the most successful season in their professional history.

But for a punter canvassing a good outside bet, look no further than the men from the Valleys. They will enjoy a schedule which requires both of their major rivals to travel to Cardiff, and will already be laying their ambushes for England and Ireland.

The Six Nations always generates massive tribal occasions, and in 2019 the quality of the rugby is likely to support those occasions more than ever before.

Part of Wales’ optimism is based around an outstanding crop of sevens in the current generation of players, along with the return from injury of Lions’ stalwarts like Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams in the backline.

Wales have shown how well the twin openside theory can work, not least when out-maneuvering their huge Springboks opponents so comprehensively in the last round of November matches. The quicker and more unstructured games become in Japan, the more this Wales team is likely to thrive – as they did in the golden era of the 1970s. Take note, Wallabies.

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Whoever is crowned the King in the North in mid-March will have good reason to believe they can claim that larger prize in the global Game of Thrones on November 2 in Yokohama.

If it is Wales, it will be because they have accepted what they are as a rugby-playing nation more completely than at any other time in the Warren Gatland era. As Tyrion Lannister says in the TV series, “Once you have accepted your flaws, no one can use them against you.”

Wales are the dark horses, and they are galloping out of the dusk of recent history, running with the night.