Six Nations 2021: Wales face France in Paris for Grand Slam in unfamiliar circumstances

Six Nations 2021: Wales face France in Paris for Grand Slam in unfamiliar circumstances

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Wales claimed a 22nd Triple Crown against England in February 2021
Wales claimed a 22nd Triple Crown against England in February 2021
How to follow on Saturday: Watch live coverage & highlights on BBC One, BBC iPlayer, Connected TV’s and online; listen on BBC Radio 5 Live, Sports Extra and BBC Sounds; text coverage on the BBC Sport website and mobile app.

Wales rugby fans are all set for another potential Grand Slam Saturday – but it will be a day unlike any others.

Scotland host Italy and England travel to Dublin as the Six Nations appetisers before the main course in Paris with only France and unbeaten Wales still able to win the tournament.

A win would clinch Wales’ fifth Grand Slam of the Six Nations era.

But because of Covid-19 this would be the first without fans at the game or in pubs and rugby clubs across Wales.

Whether events will be resolved on ‘Super Saturday’ remains to be seen with Scotland still to travel to Paris on 26 March, six days after the anticipated end of the tournament.

The original game in February was called off because of Covid-19 cases in the France camp which has potentially spoiled the concept of everything being finalised on the last day.

Wales draw and they are crowned champions while there is a scenario where they could lose but still claim the title, if they pick up a bonus point and France do not. After that it could get complicated and go to the final fixture.

What is not in doubt is Wayne Pivac’s men can take away all the uncertainty by triumphing in Paris and winning a 13th Grand Slam to equal England’s tally.

A graphic reading: Saturday 20 March. Scotland v Italy 13:45-16:30 BBC One & 5 Live Sports Extra. Ireland v England 16:45-18:45 BBC Radio 5 Live & BBC Radio Ulster. France v Wales 19:15-22:25 BBC One, Radio 5 Live & Radio Wales
Times listed for Scotland v Italy and France v Wales are for the start of BBC One’s coverage. Radio coverage starts just before kick-off (14:15 and 20:00 respectively).

Grand plans

There has been something special about Six Nations finales in Wales. After all, Cardiff has had a lot of practice in hosting this defining day in recent years, with Wales winning more Six Nations Grand Slams than anybody else.

The pubs would normally be full and streets thronging with supporters celebrating the achievements of their rugby heroes.

Few will forget the sun-soaked magical March day in 2005 when hundreds of thousands of people crammed into Cardiff.

There were supporters clambering up trees outside City Hall to get a glimpse of the game on a large screen as the nation went crazy to mark the end of a 27-year wait for a Grand Slam.

Not on this occasion. No congregating in the Principality Stadium, on the city streets or rugby clubs across Wales.

No hugging random strangers decked in red, no singing the plethora of Welsh rugby anthems, no shoes sticking to the floor of packed pubs.

Instead, witnessing the prospect of a fifth Grand Slam victory in 16 years, fans will be confined to their living rooms across the country for this sofa-bound rather than stadium-bound Six Nations spectacular.

It is 50 years since Wales last completed a clean sweep away from Cardiff when all-time greats Barry John, Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams helped the class of 1971 defeat France in Paris.

Since those heady times, the Grand Slam carnival days have all been at home, with six successes in the Welsh capital from 1976 to 2019.

Four of those wins came against France, with two victories in 2005 and 2019 against Ireland, and they made legends of favourites such as Edwards, Phil Bennett, Gethin Jenkins, Gavin Henson, Shane Williams, Martyn Williams and Alun Wyn Jones.

Today the streets in cities, towns and villages in Wales will be largely quiet with Pivac’s team having to travel to Paris achieve the Grand Slam goal.

They will have to complete the feat in the intimidating Stade de France stadium, although minus the 81,000 French crowd. The arena will be only populated by players, backroom teams, stewards and a handful of media.

Wales captain Jones says the players will be thinking about the country when singing the anthems.

“It’s not lost on you, there is a slight difference with it being away,” said Jones.

“I, as an individual, and the team have not needed reminding of what everyone is facing and what we are representing.”

Wayne’s world

It is also a Grand Slam day few had expected after a disappointing 2020 where Wales finished fifth in the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup, and only won three out of 10 games.

Pivac found it tough replacing fellow New Zealander Warren Gatland, who had overseen three Grand Slam successes and two World Cup semi-finals.

Difficult calls have been made. Pivac parted ways with his defence coach and long-time ally Byron Hayward last November with Gethin Jenkins taking over.

He dropped George North in the autumn campaign and then brought him back into the fold and switched him from wing to centre.

In this tournament North has surpassed 100 Wales caps and today is part of the nation’s most experienced side in history led by world record cap holder Alun Wyn Jones.

The coach also blooded young players such as Kieran Hardy, Louis Rees-Zammit, Callum Sheedy and James Botham who have featured in this Six Nations campaign.

Pivac will also admit Wales have had their share of luck with some labelling it the “Jam Slam” and questioning the quality of their campaign so far.

The opening two victories against Ireland and Scotland were achieved against 14 men with Peter O’Mahony and Zander Fagerson sent off, while there were two controversial tries awarded against England.

The fortune argument fails to recognise the 17 tries scored in four games or a record 40 points amassed against Eddie Jones’ 2020 champions.

Wales’ 2021 Six Nations success so far is due to clinical finishing and outstanding discipline. And they have a remarkable record in recent Grand Slam showdowns.

The stars continued to align for Wales when England managed to do them a favour by defeating France, leaving Pivac’s side as the only team that could complete the clean sweep.

So despite all the doubters and detractors, if events unfold in Wales’ favour in Paris, a Six Nations Grand Slam will still be wildly celebrated. Just perhaps not in the same traditional fashion as years gone by.

England have most Grand Slams in the history of the tournament with 13, one more than Wales
England have most Grand Slams in the history of the tournament with 13, one more than Wales, but Wales have won the most since the start of the Six Nations in 2000 with the most recent of their four coming in 2019

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