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Sport Nigel Owens column: Wales' Grand Slam bid should surprise nobody — I was in camp and they looked sharp, confident, focused and ready to deliver

09:10  06 march  2021
09:10  06 march  2021 Source:   walesonline.co.uk

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What a difference a few weeks can make.

Prior to the Six Nations kicking off, Wales were being roundly written off - here, where we normally have so much belief in our team, almost as much as amongst pundits and fans of the other competing countries.

Not to mention the bookmakers who had us down for a fifth placed finish.

The criticism and lack of confidence in the side stemmed, of course, from a disappointing Autumn Nations Cup, which had followed a poor 2020 Six Nations where only Italy were below Wales.

There were calls for Wayne Pivac's head, for changes to the players, the tactics. The usual thing, I suppose, in a rugby-mad nation like Wales where everybody, quite rightly, has an opinion.

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But before each of the first three games - Ireland, Scotland, England - I predicted Wales victories.

Why my confidence?

Two reasons. One is because the autumn was about Pivac and his coaches taking stock of the squad, finding out about players, which ones were best suited to the different style he wanted for the side he'd inherited from Warren Gatland.

International rugby is a major step up from PRO14 or Europe, the intensity, pressures, mentality, even the fitness levels. The autumn was a learning curve for Pivac, he may have lost a few games, and that's never great, but he was looking to the bigger picture.

The other reason for my belief in this team is because I went into camp ahead of the Ireland opener to referee a training session and explain to the players what officials were looking to crack down upon in this tournament. Tell them what they could get away with and, more importantly, what they wouldn't be able to.

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I saw a group of players who listened, were focused, very sharp in their work, happy and quietly confident. Despite the autumn defeats, I detected a real buzz to the team.

Gatland often invited me into camp for these kind of sessions as well, it could be for scrummaging, lineout, breakdown or just general play. So I've been there with them at The Vale a few times and I have to say this was the best I had seen the team for quite some time. It really was.

The ball handling was sharp, the skill set very high. I thought to myself 'Crikey, if they play the way they are training then they can win this tournament. They really can'.

Remember, we're talking about some really good and experienced players here. Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Ken Owens, Taulupe Faletau, Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Biggar, George North, Jonathan Davies. This is the kind of experienced backbone every successful side needs.

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But talented youngsters were also coming through to give fresh impetus. Kieran Hardy started the win over England, but he was ready for that huge moment, the biggest game of his career, because Pivac had given him a couple of outings at this level previously to see if he could handle the step up.

He did, and can. Everyone in Pontyberem is so proud of him.

Same with Callum Sheedy, who showed promise as Pivac learned about him during the autumn, and who has grown in stature as the Six Nations has progressed.

Louis Rees-Zammit is a good example of a player handled superbly by Pivac. He was knocking on the door for a while, everyone was clamouring for him to be picked, but the coach needed to take a proper look first and resisted the calls. He knew Rees-Zammit was learning the game, still is, and had to be given the chance to make mistakes at the lower level first, rather than in the spotlight of top Test rugby with the glare that comes with it.

So that by the time Rees-Zammit did make the step up, he had more of an understanding of what was required and wasn't exposed to the harsh realities of international rugby too early.

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I feel Pivac has got this timing spot on. Rees-Zammit is already one of the players of the tournament - by the end of it he might even be the best.

We have a young referee in Wales called Adam Jones and the same principles apply to him. He has huge potential, can become one of the best, but the WRU referee's manager Paul Adams had to hold him back from doing too many PRO14 games too early because he knew it could possibly expose Adam. He also needed to be handled in a certain way, learn from any errors at a lower level first, and that benefits Adam.

Once he was ready and the opportunities came this season, Adam really took them and is already one of the leading referees in the league.

From being in the privileged position of seeing these Wales players close up behind the scenes, I just felt they were in tip-top shape and and really ready to make their mark this time.

Perhaps they had a bit of good fortune against Ireland, but which team wins a Triple Crown without riding their luck a little?

They were doing the business at the set-piece against Scotland and, with or without a red card, I felt Wales had seized the initiative and would win that one anyway.

That momentum being built up was one of the reasons why I was so confident of victory over England, who themselves weren't playing very well - in fact, I'm not sure they've really hit top form since beating New Zealand in that classic World Cup semi-final two years ago.

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Yes they won last year's Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup, but you just sensed England were vulnerable.

Okay, everybody knows we had two tries against England that should never have stood, no need to go into that any more, it's been said. But England were very fortunate not to get a yellow card, and in particular Maro Itoje, so it's swings and roundabouts.

Wales had control of that game in the second half and deserve credit for putting England under so much pressure they kept giving away penalties.

a group of football players posing for a picture: Wales celebrate winning the Triple Crown © David Davies/PA Wire Wales celebrate winning the Triple Crown

Pivac's side will make it four out of four against Italy, although the coach has a difficult balancing act there in terms of giving others an opportunity to play, but not wanting to upset the applecart too much of what has already been achieved by making too many changes.

So then it will come down to France for the Grand Slam and beating them in Paris will be a tall order. However, these Welsh players have a decent recent record against the French, they'll be heading out there full of confidence and it's certainly not beyond us to make it five out of five.

I'm pleased for PIvac. He was copping an awful lot of flak, nature of the beast of being Wales coach, I guess, but it was a question of him being given sufficient time to put his own stamp upon the side.

Whatever the results suggested, these players didn't suddenly become bad ones overnight. I was always aware of that. Because of coronavirus they hadn't played much, and that was an important thing to factor in and remember when you have a new coach wishing to do things slightly differently.

Pivac was finding out which players he could rely most upon, which ones needed a little bit more work.

You don't really get time at international level, which is about results. But the proof in the pudding for Pivac was always going to be what happened in this Six Nations and I'm delighted it's worked out for him.

Good luck Wales. The Triple Crown is in the bag - the title, and even Grand Slam, could well be on.

Don't be the slightest bit surprised to see it happen. I certainly won't be.

Third wave of Covid could hit Wales, First Minister warns .
Public Health Wales reported nine further deaths, taking the total in the country since the start of the pandemic to 5,476. Just over 1.2 million people had received a first dose of the vaccine and nearly 320,000 second doses had been administered in Wales – one in 10 of the population.Mr Drakeford said Wales had “flexible plans” to deal with a delay in vaccine supplies to the UK from India.The rapid COVID-19 surveillance dashboard has been updated???? https://t.co/zpWRYSUbfh???? https://t.co/HSclxpZjBhRead our daily statement here: https://t.co/u6SKHz0zsG pic.twitter.

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This is interesting!