Six Nations 2015

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Six Nations
Adam Jones quandary key to Wales' World Cup hopes
Huw Richards
March 26, 2015
Can Warren Gatland talk Adam Jones out of his international retirement? © Getty Images

So, heartrates are down and pulses back to normal after the wildest day of rugby most of us are ever likely to experience. And with the benefit of a few days perspective, an initial thought is confirmed - third place in the Six Nations was about right for Wales.

It was, of course, no ordinary third place. This was the tournament's first three-way points tie at the top since the unique five-team share in 1973 - and before that you have to go back to 1954. A points difference gap between the three covered by 10 points leaves almost infinite scope for counterfactual what-iffing.

You need only look at the last five minutes of each of the matches played last Saturday to find several moments which might have altered the destination of the title. But as the impressively sane and rational Stuart Lancaster said: "Championships are never lost or won on one moment. You can't go looking for ifs, buts and maybes."

Sixteen wins out of 20 matches represents consistency not seen from Wales since the 1970s

Justice was done. Taken over the whole 400 minutes, which is after all the point, Ireland were the best all-round team - just. And England at their best played the best rugby seen during the tournament.

The ending of the tournament also represents the close of a cycle. Rugby nowadays has an echo of presidential or parliamentary politics, with four Six Nations tournaments equating to a term of office and the World Cup to the election at the end of it.

Unlike some, Warren Gatland both wants and already has his third term, barring some spectacular collapse in fortunes this autumn or a huge falling-out. And he can claim during his second term to have cured Wales of its propensity for boom and bust - the alternation between Grand Slam champions and also-rans seen both in his first term and for a few seasons before.

Sixteen wins out of 20 matches represents consistency not seen from Wales since the 1970s. The four defeats were shared equally between Ireland and England, while four consecutive wins over France may say something about the current state of the French but was a feat beyond either Ireland or England and represents Wales' best sequence in the fixture since the 1950s.

There is also substance to Gatland's suggestion that Wales get better as the tournament progresses. Three of the four defeats came in the first two rounds, with only the loss to England in 2014 (fourth round) occurring later.

One element in that is that Wales's earlier fixtures have been a little tougher, with three out of four meetings with Ireland in the first two rounds. But there is still a clear sense of gathering strength which makes having the potentially decisive clash with Australia at the end rather than the beginning of the World Cup pool stage an advantage.

This is a team that should be able to make a real impact on the World Cup, provided that it can get out of its pool. And that remains almost as big an if as it was when the Six Nations started.

There was no more encouragement from this season's meeting with England than there was in 2014. Wales were beaten considerably more comprehensively than a five-point margin might suggest.

And while Wales undoubtedly go into the World Cup with huge plusses in terms of experience, achievement and a stable group of players who understand each other's games, that has been the case during a number of years in which they have been consistently unable to beat Australia.

Stability has too often equated with predictability, but here there are a few signs of encouragement. While not achieving the extension in range given to England by the introduction of George Ford and Jonathan Joseph, Wales at least began to move beyond the 'big blokes running down straight lines' model of recent years.

Samson Lee is treated for a leg injury, Wales v Ireland, Six Nations, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, March 14, 2015
Samson Lee's injury has added to Wales' problems in the pack © Getty Images

Rhys Webb made a huge difference at scrum-half and his quick feet and thought were a wholly uncoincidental contribution to the emergence of Dan Biggar as a composed and authoritative outside-half.

The introduction of Liam Williams added fresh footballing quality to the back three. With these changes the power, steadiness and defensive excellence of Jamie Roberts become still more of an asset, providing a different dimension rather than - as has seemed at some times in recent years - the only dimension to Welsh back play.

Roberts and Biggar were utterly integral to the key passage of Wales's entire season - watertight resistance to an Irish siege lasting eight minutes and, over two assaults, a total of 45 phases in the second half at Cardiff. It was in its own way as gripping as anything seen on that crazy final day, its successful conclusion rightly greeted with acclaim worthy of a winning try.

Wales's back and second rows also played an immense part, and both units can be inked in for the autumn. Whatever the plusses and minuses of Luke Charteris's time in France, something is clearly working. And while the Guardian's pre-tournament description of Alun-Wyn Jones as Wales's greatest lock prompted a raised eyebrow and rapid reference back to the merits of Rhys Williams, Roy John and Bob Norster, none of them can ever have had a better year than Alun-Wyn has so far in 2015. He certainly has a significant voice in that conversation.

The worry, even before Samson Lee's injury against the Irish, is of course the front row. It is not too hard, fitness permitting, to name 12 of the team who will start against England at Twickenham in the World Cup. That the three question marks are concentrated in the same part of the pack is more than a little worrying.

And it would surely make sense for a discreet, low-key inquiry to be made about Adam Jones' willingness to suspend his retirement from international rugby. No loss of face would be involved on either side - we're not talking about Kevin Pietersen here.

Gatland has made a successful appeal of this sort before. True, Martyn Williams had not retired on Gatland's watch and nor, given that it had been a World Cup year, had he missed a single Wales match when the then newly-appointed coach persuaded him to change his mind at the end of 2007.

It was one of the first things Gatland did as Wales coach, and it remains one of the best. If Adam really does think his time has gone or Gatland concluded that the new style of scrum engagement has made him obsolete (if he has, he would hardly have made it clear that Adam was still part of his plans, even when excluded last year), so be it. But the question should surely be asked.

It has been tempting, in discussing the state of Welsh rugby in recent years, to make use of 'glass half empty/half full' analogy. In these terms the glass looks reasonably full, but it will be the autumn before we're clear on the quality of the vintage.

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