Thursday, March 24, 2005

Column, March 22, 2005

THERE was a point in Saturday’s match when you could tell Welsh rugby was back.
In recent weeks the Welsh team’s success had been written off by those who had predicted they would come fourth this year as a fluke.
A flash in the pan, and Henson with his gelled hair was nothing more than a show pony.
Now, already, English papers geared up for an English win, or at worst, a French, are damning us with the faint praise that this was not a ‘vintage’ Six Nations.
Former Lions coach Dick Best even said it was a team built on sand.
The point at which his words must have turned to ashes in his mouth came in the second half, when Wales were ahead, but under siege on their own line by the Irish.
Wales won a turnover, the ball came out and in any other match you would have seen it hoofed into touch to win a breathing space.
But no, Henson looked to his left, and thought ‘There might be something on here’ – passed it out across his goal and we attacked – from our own try line.
Cocky? Certainly. Arrogant? Well, maybe. But it was something else as well – beautiful to watch.
Here was a Welsh team forged from the ferocious Southern Hemisphere fitness regimes of Graham Henry and Steve Hansen.
Added to that was relentless, attacking, open rugby of Mike Ruddock and the result was a team that were runaway winners of the Grand Slam.
Run it out from your try line? Well, why not, if it’s Shane Williams running with it, anything is possible.
Teams built on sand do not field props like Gethin Jenkins who charge down a kick, play football with it and then beat the Irish defence to score a try.
And Henson, a show pony? Some show when you drop a goal and then slot a 53-metre penalty like it was a training ground kick. Ask Brian O’Driscoll who was folded as efficiently in a monstrous Henson tackle on Saturday as England’s Matthew Tait was when Wales opened this campaign.
There is one thing that will always, always strike terror into the heart of a rugby team and that is pace, and the Welsh are now playing at a speed which simply bewitches them.
No sooner was one red shirt tackled than another appeared carrying the ball. Built on sand? The Irish must have felt like they were trying to hold onto sand as wave after wave of Welsh attacks came their way.
Whereas in the past we bemoaned one dropped pass or one missed kick that meant the difference between victory and defeat, now an attack which comes to nought is shrugged off, safe in the knowledge that there will be another one along soon.
And what attacks they are. Shane Williams and Dwayne Peel must live on a diet of nectar. Swift as hummingbirds, they are a blur on the pitch, in the time it takes an opponent to realise they are there, they’re off twisting, turning in another direction, leaving tacklers to grasp at the air turbulence in their wake.
But what does the win mean for Wales? This was a question addressed by the BBC in the run-up to Saturday by Wyre Davies in a report from a feverish Cardiff. But to put things in perspective he took his cameras to Pontypool where unemployment is still high and the goalposts rust on a rugby ground that has seen better days.
All well and good to put things in perspective, but when England returned with the World Cup I don’t remember such navel gazing.
Sometimes it does you good to lose all perspective and believe in yourselves. Who would have thought after last year’s performance we would have won the Grand Slam.
Who would have had the confidence, with Wales at 40-1 against to do it, to risk the housekeeping money down the bookies (not me, and if you did, I don’t want to know)?
But to be fair to the Beeb, their build-up to the match was beautifully done, especially the sequence about the Welsh side-step.
“You can teach someone how to sidestep,” said Ieuan Evans, as footage rolled by of him dancing around flailing defenders, “But you can’t teach them when.”
But Gerald Davies must have brought tears to the eyes of anyone who has played rugby at any level when he said: “The sidestep is the small man’s act of retribution. In a game of big men this is one moment of revenge. There is a way, a Welsh way, a special way to play rugby football.”
In this Six Nations Wales could not have been truer to his vision. In the 90s you would have been forgiven for thinking that rugby had become a game only for big men. Large, grinding forwards who could batter down a defence and force a penalty for Jonny Wilkinson to kick – time, after time, after time.
You might have enjoyed watching it if you were wearing a white shirt, but only for the result, there was precious little spectacle to behold. The England team’s performance having lost just a few key players shows just which one was built on sand.
Wales did more than just win the Grand Slam on Saturday, they won back rugby. Over the course of this Six Nations they reminded us all of what a truly sublime game it can be and we fell in love with it all over again.
It was a game that was enthralling to watch, full of possibilities and most of all, fun. Wales had not abandoned the ethos that made them a legendary force in international rugby. This was not victory at all costs; this was not victory brought with New Zealanders grandfathered into the side. This was a Welsh team playing wonderful, truly Welsh, rugby.
Whether this was indeed a vintage Six Nations history will decide, but remember the average age of those playing was just 26 years – there’s a lot of rugby left in them before these ‘show ponies’ are put out to grass.
Those who believe this is a team built on sand might also be interested in another result from the weekend – Wales 32, Ireland 5.
That was the result from the Under-21s match, where Wales also won the Grand Slam.
As Henson said after the match: “This is just the beginning.”

1 comment:

Francine McKenna said...

I've linked to your March 22, 2005 post from my blog today,, because of your interesting definition of the term, "sidestep". It's a little of what I'm doing with the blog, as a girl in a world of some very big men.