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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Column, March 20, 2007

Yes, I know, I know, I've been most remiss in recent weeks, but here it is anyway.

I SUPPOSE you have to admire their optimism.
I mean having spent so many Six Nations in the past clinging on to mathematical hopes of salvaging some glory, or worse avoiding the wooden spoon, you can see how they might have approached Saturday’s match with something other than a feeling of impending gloom
And you can see why, Mike Catt had had a good match, they’d beaten the French and so, if results went their way, they might be masters of their own destiny come 5.30pm on Saturday.
And so they were, the Six Nations championship was in England’s grasp when they took to the field in the Millennium Stadium against Wales.
There was just the small matter of winning by a margin of 57 points.
The French, out of a sense of decorum, kept the champagne on ice until the end of the Wales England game, but they could have cracked open the bubbly the moment they stepped off the pitch because their grip on the title was never in any danger.
In what alternate universe did even the most blindly loyal England follower believe they were going to stick 57 points up us, and do it unanswered?
I’ll tell you the only way they were going to do it, a detachment of Royal Marines on the England 22 armed to the teeth and with orders to shoot to kill. Even then I’m fairly sure that Shane Williams, being officially faster than a speeding bullet, would find a way through to the tryline.
Were there really any England fans trooping into the stadium who believed that?
Perhaps there were and they might have pondered over the differential scores and points differences and come up with the idea that they might just do it.
Then one of their number, whose grip on reality had not been totally loosened by copious pre-match quantities of Brains Dark, would have piped up: “Ah, but this is Wales-England.”
Then they will have tucked up their hopes for another year, realising that, even if they were to win – and it has happened on occasion – it would be a war of attrition with every point surrendered with the same reluctance you would have to giving up your firstborn.
If there were any poor misguided souls who still harboured a shred of hope that it was they, not the Irish or French who would lift the trophy at the end of the day, then James Hook’s charge-down try will have settled their hash for them.
They will have momentarily forgotten that they were playing the original dogs in a manger who would have anyone but England win and would duly raise their game to prevent such an occurrence.
The English side may not be the ‘Ruperts’ of old, ex-public schoolboys of a certain social standing who were there to be taken down a peg or two by a Welsh team which similarly is no longer made up of men forged in the mining communities of ghe valleys.
But old enmities run exceeding deep and if Wales produce just one great performance a season it will be against England. They will run that bit faster, push that bit harder, tackle that bit more ferociously, simply because they are doing it against England.
There is a danger in letting ourselves become too defined by sporting set pieces like this. After all, rugby no more defines the entire Welsh nation than Wimbledon does the English.
So be it, we must force ourselves to forget sporting glory lest we take our eye off the ball in other, more important, matters.
It’s no good turning a blind eye to our Assembly’s failings, and successes, because once a year we have the diversion of the rugby, albeit a very entertaining diversion.
But it would also be wrong to deny ourselves just a few moments to bask in a great win by a Welsh side.
You cannot help but enjoy the spectacle of a Welsh pack routing their opposition. There is a sheer joy to be had in watching Shane Williams frighten the living daylights out of his opposition by his ability to sail past them in the blink of an eye.
James Hook is simply a revelation, a great player and another kicker who must make his opponents’ hearts sink as he slots kick after kick after kick.
And the tackling, it was like watching the All Blacks, some of the hits doled out by Welsh players must have been been felt by the England players’ grandparents, such was their ferocity.
And talking of the All Blacks, that will be the real test of this Welsh side. No-one can argue they were firing on all cylinders in this Six Nations. But what they did show is the ability to play with speed and brilliance.
They were not able to sustain it in these matches, but if they were able to for the World Cup then who knows what they could achieve.
That will be the real test of greatness, whether they can repeat this sort of performance against the mighty All Blacks, or Australia, or South Africa.
As I said last week, the result of this Six Nation may make Wales a weak prospect on paper and those facing them will have been lulled into a false sense of security.
Another group feeling a bit safe from Wales are the bookmakers who have put them at 70-1 to win the World Cup. England they’ve got on at 22-1.
I’m not a betting man, but after Saturday’s performance I think the odds on Wales are a bit long and it might just be worth having a few quid on them to pull off an extraordinary victory.
Do you know if we all put £5 on them to win and they pulled it off we would be up as a nation by more than £1bn.
That would fund quite a celebration party.

Incidentally, and for the blog only, I'm grateful to the reader who sent me a T-shirt this week depicting a dragon shoving a chariot up a bulldog's arse.
He's selling them on e-bay should you wish to obtain one.