There have been many measures of Wales’ progress this autumn, but a try-scoring prop is one of the more eye-catching.
Warren Gatland’s team may have gone through a first four-from-four autumn Tests clean sweep and have now achieved nine successive victories, but there was also a human and visual form to that leap forward when Tomos Francis scored his try in the victory over South Africa.
No Wales prop had previously touched down in Tests against South Africa, New Zealand or Australia until the Exeter forward sent his team on their way to a 20-11 victory over the Springboks.
The winning streak is Wales’ longest since 1999 – and they have not lost at home for a year – but props running in tries under the posts against major opposition is not something supporters are familiar with.
It augurs well for a Six Nations campaign that begins against France in Paris on February 1, with Francis, who had never scored a try for Wales or his club Exeter, enthused by what lies ahead.
“Winning is a habit and, as a squad, we believe,” he said. “Everyone works for each other, and we are on a good run at the minute. It is a squad you want to be involved in. The atmosphere is unreal.
It was a great feeling to score a try – it is not something I do very often. I think the last one was when I played for London Scottish or Doncaster.”
Wales’ win came at a cost, with back row forward Ellis Jenkins suffering a knee injury that could yet see him miss the entire Six Nations campaign and possibly the rest of this season.
But flanker Justin Tipuric knows more than most just how competitive the fight for back row places will remain as other players such as Taulupe Faletau return from injury.
“Firstly it was big for us to start off the autumn with a win – we haven’t done that for a while,” said Tipuric.
“Then to finally beat Australia after so many attempts was a huge boost. It had been 13 matches and 10 years, so it’s been a good start to what we know is a big year with the World Cup at the end.
“No one is getting ahead of themselves, though. I think the main thing is building as a squad and this autumn has shown the strength in depth we have. We’ve got a few boys injured and we’re still able to win games.”
While Tipuric is now the first choice openside flanker, it has taken him a long time to reach that status. The presence of two-time Lions skipper and former Wales captain Sam Warburton in Tipuric’s favoured No 7 jersey was something which provided him with the most intense competition, even though the pair often teamed up together in the same side.
Warburton’s injury-enforced retirement at the start of this season robbed Gatland of one of his best players, yet has also opened the door for others, with Tipuric now the old stager at 29 ahead of a number of younger rivals.
He is one of a wealth of genuine openside flanker options available to Wales. Jenkins – when he recovers – James Davies, Josh Navidi, Thomas Young and Ollie Griffiths are also classy potential options.
Tipuric is the one currently leading the way and while his natural ball-playing talent remains as high as ever, his profile has maybe gone to another level this November with others absent.
“I think the back-row has always been a pretty strong with Wales, but as a squad now there is competition all over the place with our new strength in depth,” Tipuric said.
“When you play international rugby you know that when you put the jersey on, it could be your last.
“That’s the way I look at it, so I try to make sure I go out there and enjoy it. You could get injured somewhere down the line. When I put the Welsh jersey on, I don’t look too far ahead.
“In this campaign winning has helped us. The run of victories we are on has built confidence and the boys are working hard for each other.
“Whenever you get the chance to play, you know you’ve done the hard work needed to get there, but we’re not doing anything different in this camp.
“Most of the boys relax in the evening and keep their head down and recover ready for the next day because training is so tough here. It was very, very hard in the first couple of weeks.
“There was a lot of fitness and we didn’t really do much rugby before that Scotland game.”