What a difference a few weeks have made for Wales: without a victory over a top-10 nation since overcoming 14-man France in the 2019 World Cup quarter-final, they face England in Cardiff on Saturday buoyed by a 100% record after two rounds of the Six Nations.
In their opening matches, Ireland and Scotland obligingly had a player sent off, but a side that in the autumn struggled for direction and lacked fire have twice come from behind. Yes, they exploited a numerical advantage, but also revealed a change in direction. Having won the grand slam in 2019 thanks largely to their defence, Wales are relying more on creativity.
A difference has been the return to fitness of Ken Owens. At 34, the Lions hooker is at an age when a successor should be timing his run, but Wales need his experience and ability to rouse his teammates at a time when a lack of spectators at grounds is, in the words of Eddie Jones, affecting the arousal of players. Owens made one appearance off the bench for the Scarlets before the Six Nations but was on the field for all except nine minutes in the first two weekends.
“I would like to have had a couple more games as it has been a bit of a shock to the system, but it was not to be,” he said. “It would have been different had I had no rugby and I am sure England’s Saracens players will be better for the two run-outs they have had.
“It has been interesting playing a Test match in an empty stadium. People can hear me singing out of tune, which is not the best. When the pyrotechnics stopped before the Ireland game, there was a deathly silence and you did not know what to make of it.
“A crowd gives you a lift and an energy you can feed off and I can see what Eddie Jones means. We are all in the same boat and you have to find your own motivation, but the two games this month have been as physical as they were a year ago, exactly how Test rugby should be played.”
Wales’s grand slam campaign two years ago achieved lift-off in the third round when England visited Cardiff and were on top for an hour before being overtaken. The fixtures this year are in reverse order, ending rather than starting in Paris, and Wales were not much more fancied then than they were at the start of this year’s championship.
“We have been able to go under the radar,” Owens. “No one expected anything from us and while we have secured two victories, we have a lot to improve on. I do not like comparing other years, but perhaps there is something similar to 2019. I will tell you how much by the end of the tournament.”
Wayne Pivac reckoned he had 21 players unavailable for the trip to Scotland last Saturday, but he has decisions to make in a number of positions, not least in the centre, where George North, one short of his 100th cap for his country, Jonathan Davies and Johnny Williams are back in the mix, and on the wing, where Josh Adams is available again after being suspended for a breach of Covid-19 protocol.
The question should be asked whether two weeks off is long enough for a player who has suffered so many head injuries, but if Leigh Halfpenny recovers from his latest concussion to remain at full-back, then Adams, the top try-scorer in the last World Cup, would need to oust Liam Williams or Louis Rees-Zammit, try scorers both at Murrayfield.
“Everyone was frustrated in the autumn because all the hard work being put in did not translate into results, but what was significant was the exposure players had,” said Owens. “They have been able to make the step up this month because of that.
“We have changed a couple of things tactically, but there has been more continuity in selection. We are going in the right direction.”