Time-travel back to the autumn of 1992 when Llanelli RFC and Swansea RFC were playing rugby of such quality that they amassed 152 points over a single league weekend.
The Whites crushed South Wales Police 73-24 at St Helen’s, with 11 tries and Mark Titley contributing 23 points. It was a display embellished by pace and skill, with the jet-heeled wing Simon Davies scoring a hat-trick.
After the game, Swansea’s players retired to the bar to view highlights from Llanelli’s joust with Newport at Rodney Parade. You could hear a pin drop as Mike Ruddock’s squad watched the Scarlets post a 79-10 win in a match that had been expected to be close. Colin Stephens supplied 39 points. The rugby was from another planet.
Yet Wales went on to finish bottom of the Five Nations a few months later, winning just one game. Players seemed unable to take their club form into international rugby. Even in England they couldn’t understand what was going on. “We watch the Welsh matches on TV over here and the rugby played and skills levels are outstanding,” an English player was quoted as saying.
Fast forward to 2019 and the under-funded regions are having a bumpy time while the national team goes from strength to strength.
They will play for a Grand Slam against Ireland on Saturday and if they win it will be Welsh rugby’s third in 11 years. How can that be, given the issues are regional level? “There is no doubt we are punching massively above our weight,” Warren Gatland acknowledged only last week.
It’s a point that has travelled across the Irish Sea, with Gordon D’Arcy, an Ireland Grand Slam winner from 2009, noting in a column for The Irish Times how a strange metamorphosis occurs when Welsh players step up to international rugby.
Brian O’Driscoll’s old midfield partner says: “Ten years ago we entered this spaceship hovering over the River Taff on the last day of the Six Nations and caught the Welsh with some cold, calculated tries from Brian and Tommy straight after half-time.
“At 14-6 the Grand Slam was ours but Stephen Jones kept them afloat with a penalty here another penalty there, until his late drop goal put them ahead with moments to play.
“We came back down field and Ronan O’Gara clipped his own score but still we couldn’t shake Wales off. It came down to Jones’s effort almost 50 metres from the posts falling under the cross bar and into Geordie Murphy’s arms. It came down to nothing in the end.
“Wales right now are no different. Their average PRO14 player transforms into a world-beater on these crazy Six Nations days in Cardiff.
“Alun Wyn Jones remains from that 2009 side. He is the soul of Welsh rugby in 2019. The current team want to relive the greatest days under Warren Gatland. They grew up watching another Wales team overwhelm Ireland in 2005.
“Something magical occurs when the red jersey goes on in the Six Nations, especially against England or Ireland. They rise to the occasion, surge with belief.”
It isn’t lost on the Welsh class of 2019 that the challenge facing them at the Principality Stadium on Saturday is an immense one. Until recently, Ireland hadn’t beaten New Zealand in 108 years of trying. But over the past three matches between the countries they have won twice. Maybe they are the best side in world rugby.
Johnny Sexton has pointed out that they have previously stopped long unbeaten runs of both New Zealand and England, with the unspoken message being that it might not be beyond the Irish players to do the same to Wales.
Gatland deserves huge praise for fashioning a Grand Slam tilt out of regional chaos. His side are on a 13-game unbeaten streak and within 80 minutes of a clean sweep. Possibly, it would be his finest achievement as a coach if Wales were to triumph on Saturday, given the unpropitious circumstances.
But D’Arcy adds: “If this Ireland team want to add to established greatness then this, this surge must be snuffed out with ruthlessness we know Ireland possess.
“Rugby being cyclical, teams generally have four years to succeed and Wales are only really starting out on that journey. Ireland are top of their arc. This is year four. They start again in 2020.
“But Ireland are underdogs again, which is nice having been the undisputed champions until February 2.
“What is it about Wales at the Millennium/Principality stadium?
“How did they ruin England’s march to a Grand Slam?
“Why is Warren Gatland on the cusp of delivering a third slam as their head coach?”
According to the former centre, it is down to Wales always managing to stay in the fight under Gatland. He points to the entire championship swinging on the minutes before and after Dan Biggar entered the fray against England, and suggests Ireland need to start rapidly this weekend.
Tellingly, he adds: “If this comes down to an emotional performance Ireland are in major trouble.”
For the ex-Leinster man, Ireland’s victory hopes rest on “coaching and clinical play”. But Wales have some decent coaches, too.
Everything is in place for a Celtic humdinger. A fitting setting for Gatland’s Six Nations swansong with Wales and Schmidt’s with Ireland.
Ireland’s well-resourced provinces have a clear edge over the regions.
But the Gatland factor is at play at Test level.
It adds a dimension of incalculable worth to Wales.