Wales will head to the Cote d’Azur sunshine on Saturday as Five and Six Nations record-breakers.
Wales head coach Warren Gatland claimed his team had “forgotten how to lose” after they staged an epic Six Nations fightback that stunned France 24-19 in Paris.
Wales trailed by 16 points at half-time but responded magnificently, posting a 10th successive win and equalling their longest undefeated run since 1999.
It eclipsed the previous best comeback in Five or Six Nations history after France recovered a 15-0 deficit after 37 minutes to defeat Ireland 26-21 in 1989.
And Gatland’s squad now travel to Nice, where they will be based before leaving for Rome next Thursday and a Six Nations appointment with Italy.
Wales’ victory – a seventh over France from the last eight starts – underlines their credentials as strong title contenders this season.
Tries by scrum-half Tomos Williams and wing George North, who capitalised on opposite number Yoann Huget’s defensive howler, plus two Gareth Anscombe conversions and a Dan Biggar penalty edged Wales ahead following a 15-minute purple patch.
And after France went back in front through a Camille Lopez penalty, North claimed his second try – a stunning 60-metre interception effort that Biggar converted – to see Wales home.
“For me, the big difference between the two teams is that we’ve become a side that has probably forgotten how to lose and can dig deep like that,” Gatland said.
“On the other hand, they (France) are probably a team searching for some confidence, having not had a great run in the last seven or eight matches.”
Wales, unbeaten since losing to Ireland in last season’s Six Nations, were up against it as Les Bleus dominated the opening 40 minutes and cruised clear through touchdowns by Louis Picamoles and Huget, while Lopez booted a penalty and a drop-goal.
Gatland added: “We know that we get better the more time we have together.
“To win this tournament, you need a bit of luck. We look back on our victories and know that sometimes you have the bounce of the ball.
“It’s tough in the Six Nations when you come up against one of the big teams. France in Paris is a real challenge, and if you can win the first game then you have a good chance of winning the tournament.”
Attention will now turn to the Italy clash, with two of Wales’ three games after that being at home – against title rivals England and Ireland.
Gatland added: “The whole thing for the last two years has been about creating depth. We’re trying to replicate what is going to happen later this year (at the World Cup).
“We would like other players to get an opportunity next week. Some might start, and some might be on the bench.”
There’ll be a familiar surname on the team sheet for Scottish rugby fans when their side take to the Murrayfield pitch against Italy as on Saturday night – perhaps the most famous surname in Scottish rugby history.
Adam Hastings – son of Dark Blues great Gavin – has been selected in Gregor Townsend’s 2019 Six Nations squad and will likely win his fifth cap from the bench against the Azzurri.
The 22-year-old donned the famous jersey for the first time against Canada last summer. It is a jersey his father, as well as his uncle Scott, wore with distinction.
Gavin, 57, won 61 caps for Scotland, scoring 667 points (he is 18th on the all-time international rugby points scorers’ list), as well as featuring for the British & Irish Lions six times.
Younger brother Scott, 54, played 64 times for his country and twice for the Lions. And while Hastings junior will have to bide his time with Finn Russell ahead of him as Scotland’s first-choice fly-half, his uncle insists the Glasgow Warriors pivot is carving his own path in the famous family.
“He’s an exciting player but one willing to learn and understand you only get your rewards from hard work,” said the younger Hastings brother, speaking to Sport360 during December’s Dubai Rugby Sevens in his ambassadorial role with Capgemini.
“That ethic has taken him into the Scotland squad, and hopefully will continue for years to come.
“Both Gav and I are really proud of the way he’s handled himself in his professional career so far both in Bath and Glasgow. From what I’ve learned from Gregor Townsend and Dave Rennie (Glasgow coach) he’s willing to learn and listen and have an impact in the way his teams prepare.
“He revels in the atmosphere and he’s creating his own destiny. And while his uncle and father have done great things in the game he’s setting himself up for a great future in the game too.
“He’s 22, he’s going to make mistakes as I and Gavin did. But you learn and you get confidence from winning. For Scotland as a rugby nation, that extra effort has to be put in to get that respect, because it’s hard against nations so rich in talent and coached well like Ireland, England and Wales.
“He has Finn Russell to compete with. They will both have their chances but it’s great he’s in the equation. He’s still only 22. I was capped at 21. Hopefully he’ll do well.”
If Warren Gatland were a Game of Thrones character, he’d be Daenerys Targaryen. Played by English actress Emilia Clarke, she is heralded as the ‘Mother of Dragons’ in the hit TV show – she walked into a blazing fire in season one and emerged not only unburnt, but with three hatched baby dragons as her children.
And New Zealand native Gatland could well be crowned the ‘Father of Dragons’ for the role he has played in nurturing and moulding this young and exciting Welsh squad that seems destined for greatness, even though their paternal leader will leave them to fend for themselves later this year when he departs after the World Cup.
The youthful exuberance of this current crop is not the only reason for bestowing the nickname upon Gatland. Despite being a Kiwi, an outsider, he is very much a central figure in this Welsh set-up, indeed in Welsh rugby history.
For no one individual – certainly off the field – even comes close to the impact the 55-year-old has had on the nation in its 137-year existence.
Although the Welsh Rugby Union was established in 1881 and a first-ever international was played later that year against famous old foes England, Wales did not have their first proper coach until David Nash’s appointment in 1967.
Since then Gatland’s effect on the Dragons has been most stark. He is the only man to have led Wales for more than 100 games (109), with his 56 victories dwarfing the next highest figure of 20 posted by compatriot Graham Henry, who was in charge from 1998-2002.
He has been in the role twice as long as the next longest servant, Clive Rowlands (1968-74). Alan Davies, meanwhile, who was coach from 1991-95, oversaw the second most games, 35.
Gatland led Wales for an unprecedented 109th time against France on Friday as the 2019 Six Nations – his last in charge – got under way in Paris.
It will soon be the end of an era for Wales. The Hamilton-born man will relinquish his 12-year reign on his Dragons after the World Cup in Japan.
But rather than looking at the future with skepticism as Gatland, as well as assistants Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards also sever ties, Welsh rugby fans should look to the horizon with hope and excitement. For there is much to get excited about.
There is a tantalising mix of youth and experience in a talented squad Gatland has picked for an assault on the Six Nations as he looks to bow out with a fourth title of his tenure.
Captain Alun-Wyn Jones, who is somehow still only 33 and the only surviving member of Gatland’s first game in charge – a rousing 26-19 triumph over England in the first week of the 2008 Six Nations – remains a force of nature.
Full-back Leigh Halfpenny remains one of the finest kickers in the game, Jonathan Davies’ return from lengthy injury is a welcome one – the Scarlets centre is arguably Wales’ most talent-rich player.
Ken Owens’ best years have come at the latter part of his career, Justin Tipuric is one of the best all-round forwards in international rugby, while 10-cap Hadleigh Parkes – who only earned his Wales debut aged 30 in the 2017 autumn internationals – has fitted seamlessly into the Welsh midfield.
That’s without even mentioning the likes of players who have in excess of 50 caps – George North, Liam Williams, Dan Biggar and Scott Williams – yet are still aged 26-29. And we’ve bypassed the fact Sam Warburton and Jamie Roberts are recently retired.
With that as a solid base, throw the likes of emerging stars Thomas Young (26), Ross Moriarty, Steff Evans, Tomos Williams (all 24), Josh Adams and Adam Beard (both 23) into the mix.
Only six players in this squad are over 30. Only England (four) have fewer veterans in their 2019 Six Nations contingent.
Wales are also finally playing an attractive, attacking brand of rugby under Gatland, having firmly moved on from the ‘Warrenball’ tactics of crash ball. Wingers Evans and Adams are livewires while the return of Davies in the midfield gives the back line a player who reads the game like an American football quarterback.
So, although the sun is very much setting on Gatland’s time in charge, and while there is plenty of sentiment going around for what he has done for Welsh rugby, there is little sadness.
This Welsh side is set up for a new era. Wayne Pivac is primed to replace his compatriot and the current Scarlets tactician, who will become Wales’ fourth Kiwi coach, could not ask for much more in terms of an ideal handover.
Two of Wales’ Six Nations titles under Gatland have yielded Grand Slams, but they enter his final tournament looking for a first trophy in six years and with reigning champions Ireland and England – the only two winners in the intervening years – slightly more favoured.
But aside from wanting to send their fatherly figure off with a fourth Six Nations trophy of his reign, they also come into the tournament with plenty of momentum. Wales’ wonderful winning streak now stands at 10 following a battling victory in Paris. They haven’t tasted defeat since losing to Ireland midway through last year’s tournament.
Win one more and they will equal the country’s longest run of successive wins, 11, stretching back to 1910.
If Italy fall next week, then Wales will have the chance to set a new record of 12 wins against England in Cardiff on February 23.
Achieve that and the Father of Dragons might just be able to convince people he can walk through fire unscathed too.