Martyn Fowler is synonymous with rugby in Cardiff: from humble beginnings coaching his son's under-eights team in Splott, to stints with Bedwas and Merthyr in the Welsh Premiership. His hard work and dedication to the game has been repaid, as he will next season be holding the reins at both Cardiff University and his beloved Cardiff RFC, where he is soon to be unveiled as Director of Rugby. I caught up with the man himself as he took a rare break from masterminding the university's tilt at the Varsity, which is to be held at the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday. Such is Fowler's passion for rebuilding the game in the capital city, I left the interview genuinely excited for the future of Cardiff rugby. With all that's happened in the last few months, how often has anyone been able to say that?
Fowler takes a pragmatic view of the final game of the season, contested between Swansea and Cardiff. Despite his heavy involvement in getting the match moved to the Millennium Stadium -and his unmistakable enthusiasm for the event- he still feels that, unfairly, whatever occurs during this one-off game overshadows his side's efforts throughout the regular season.
"Irrespective of what you do all year, you always seem to be judged on one game," he says. "I don't like that, personally. We've had a phenomenal year in the league - we've beaten Swansea twice - and arguably have one of the best sides we've had in the six years I've been here. On our day, and I say this with the greatest humility, I honestly believe that this year we are the best Welsh university."
Fowler states that the statistics obviously back up this last assertion, and while some university sides occasionally field weakened sides, that certainly hasn't been the case this season. This applies to the UWIC side Cardiff University took on and beat in Cyncoed, of whom Fowler said "they didn't look in the game at all".
"If we can take that type of attitude into the Varsity, we should have a good shout," he reasons. "The problem with the Varsity is that Cardiff are the perennial underdogs, and people need to understand this."
Fowler gives an example as to why this is the case. There was a request from Cardiff's PR office for Swansea players' details (such as names, positions, courses, etc). The Cardiff coaching staff were quite alarmed to see that some of the Swansea players who will be wearing green on Wednesday are quite tenuously linked to the university by means of a Higher National Diploma (HND) in such subjects as 'Sport'. Well, as alarmed as one could be, having experienced the same ruse year on year by Swansea.
"Effectively, you can recruit a team if you have the ability to choose players with HNDs," says Fowler. What with Cardiff's rivals' tendency to select players for the Varsity that haven't played for the university all season, he likens the match to the FA Cup Final. "I would prefer this one-off game to be played on level terms, if I'm honest. That might sound like sour grapes, but we've insisted that our players go through the BUCS [British Universities and Colleges Sport] route, so they've got to earn the right to put that Varsity shirt on. Unfortunately, I don't think that Swansea adopt the same attitude."
"We're happy for everybody to know our team. Our team is our team. It's been our team, on the whole, throughout the season. Their team is always shrouded in secrecy until kick-off, or until you see it on that big screen when you turn up at the stadium."
Having interviewed Fowler on more than one occasion over the last few years, I've seen an obvious affection and loyalty in him for his players that isn't always the case at some rugby clubs. It would explain why he says the following about professional players being parachuted in for the Varsity: "Morally, you've got to ask questions of the Swansea coach. I just couldn't do that to a student who had played for us week in, week out. I couldn't do it. Some things are more important than the Varsity match."
Fowler is pleased that the rugby programme he is overseeing at Cardiff University is bearing fruit. He reels off information about each individual member of the squad without hesitation, most of whom are playing in the Welsh Premiership. (Those who aren't, such as the hulking second row medical student Nic Huntley, are unable to do so because of the heavy workload their courses put on them).
Fowler's credo is that "it's all about getting the best players on the park," which would explain why he's moved Arthur Ellis (as interviewed in my previous blog) from hooker to openside flanker. "Arthur's a superbly talented footballer," he says. "So we're going to take a punt - a very calculated punt."
Cardiff fans disappointed by the last two years' showings at the Varsity will be pleased to hear that the Cardiff head coach is optimistic about his team's chances tomorrow: "There's a nice balance in the side this year, with plenty of experience. I will say -not to put the curse on us- I fancy our chances this year. I really do."
Much of Cardiff's success this season has hinged on the performance of their pack, which pleases Fowler hugely. "Our scrum is really dominant at the moment," come the words that every coach desperately wishes he could say. Besides props such as Jake Cooper-Woolley, Geoff Lewin and Ross Grimstone coming into their third- or fourth-year cycles with the club, there is a 19-year-old Fresher from the Rhondda who has greatly impressed the coach.
Bradley Thyer is a former Wales Under-18's tighthead prop who will be switching to loosehead for the Varsity in his debut season with Cardiff University. It will be an incredible achievement for the Ferndale boy who, along with hooker Grimstone, is viewed by his coach as one of the "shining lights" of the team this season.
Now that Cardiff University's Summer Ball has been cancelled due to record losses, the Varsity is without doubt the biggest event of the Students' Union's calendar. Fowler credits the Union for their hard work and willingness to take risks, adding that he has been lucky to have been part of a dedicated Varsity team for the last four years. He is now a member of the newly formed Varsity Board, a collaboration between the university and the Union. The results thus far have been excellent.
"The Millennium Stadium, live on TV. It's an absolutely fantastic opportunity to showcase everything that's good about student sport," he says proudly.
THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY
Among the many players Fowler has coached that have achieved great things in the game, there are two class acts that were allowed to slip the Welsh international net entirely. One is Ben Morgan, the number eight whose rapid rise from anonymity to subject of a tug-of-war between Wales and his native England saw him prevaricate, before choosing the Red Rose. A wise choice, perhaps, considering he was a revelation in white during the Six Nations.
"Ben's almost like an adopted son," beams Fowler, who coached Morgan at Merthyr RFC. "I've got a real fondness for him. No matter what Ben does, he'll always be Ben. If he ended up going on three Lions tours, he would still be the same person."
Fowler has witnessed the pitfalls of being a professional rugby player. "There's always a danger with young men that they get what I call 'New Pro Syndrome,'" he believes. "They tend to lose their way for a couple of years. That will never happen with Ben. He's got great family values; I know the family really well. Those values translate to everything he does off the field."
How exactly a young man from Gloucestershire ended up in Merthyr Tydfil is a tale worth recounting. "I was told about this kid playing on the wing for Cinderford 2nds," recalls Fowler, who at the time had just been given the head job at Merthyr. "I had a budget of around £75,000, so we decided to use that money really wisely and look for something the club hadn't had before."
Wales's Division 1 East is a notoriously attritional, forward-orientated league, so Fowler decided that the only chance Merthyr had of winning it was to look for big men who could also play the ball: "We went up to Cinderford, and there was this huge, Jonah Lomu-esque figure -though slightly less conditioned, I will concede- playing on the left wing, and it was Ben."
"He was as quick as any winger I'd ever seen over the first 30 metres, and he had a lovely soft touch. I wanted to let their coach Mark Cornwall [now, ironically, part of the same Gloucester Rugby set-up Ben Morgan will be part of next season] know first that that I intended to speak to him. He said: 'You crack on: he's lazy, he's hopeless...'"
Fowler immediately threw his new signing into the Welsh 7s circuit, where he proved to be a revelation. In his first season at Merthyr, Morgan was "unstoppable", according to his old coach. While the club ended up finishing second in the league, Fowler firmly believes that had Morgan not been injured in the final month, it is likely they would have won it.
"Ben and his dad Steve fully embraced the Merthyr set-up: they were ever-present there, staying overnight, drinking with the boys. He's a lovely, lovely lad."
The other player I'm referring to is centre Matt Hopper. Hopper was Fowler's Varsity captain in 2007 and, in light of some of his terrific performances for the Harlequins and subsequently the England Saxons, I am curious as to how the powers-that-be let him get away from Wales. Sky Sports and Sunday Times pundit Stuart Barnes has been particularly vocal in proclaiming Hopper the solution to England's midfield problems.
"While he was at university, you could see the talent," Fowler remembers. "I tried to push Matt through the Cardiff Blues region but they didn't even want to look at him. Sometimes you can tell what another coach thinks. Whether they felt the need to pay credence to my opinion is another question. You tend to know good rugby players. Matt's inclusion in the Harlequins and Saxons set-up vindicated my opinion, so I think it was more their loss than Matt's."
Fowler still watches the progress of both Morgan and Hopper, but chances are there might be more than a few players in this university squad who could move on to equally higher ground.
THE COACHING JOURNEY
"When my son turned eight, he wanted to play rugby because my brothers and myself all played," says Fowler. "We're a very big rugby family. My dad played rugby, we just loved the game. I injured my back fairly young so I stopped playing, and dipped in and out of the game while I could, because I had to work full-time in the family business."
Aaron, his son, was inspired by watching his father and uncles play rugby and wanted to be a part of that environment immediately. "I was more than happy just to sit there and watch, enjoying the rugby," he says. "But week by week you end up getting more engaged. So I ended up coaching Aaron and the side from under-8 to under-16; then from the Youth years, watching and coaching that team was incredible."
'Incredible' is an apt description, because the team travelled all over Britain, playing various clubs and academies, winning every single game. Some 15 boys from that Youth side went on to be capped at Schools level. Fowler puts this success down to one major factor, which has served him well - be it from coaching an Under-8s side in Splott, to the new role he will take up next season as Cardiff RFC Director of Rugby.
"If you have a good, fun environment, whether it be pro, semi-pro or amateur," believes Fowler, "people are going to want to come and play. You could be paying someone a hundred grand a year, but if the environment's wrong, they're not going to perform."
As Aaron grew older and prepared to go to university (he would go on to successfully captain Cardiff in Varsity '09), Fowler debated whether to carry on coaching. Then he got a phone call from Justin Burnell, then Academy Director of the Cardiff Blues, asking him to coach their U20s side. Under Fowler, the team won the Reebok Championship; a coach's star was on the rise, and he got offered the Head of Rugby job he still holds at Cardiff University.
"Everybody wants to be your friend when you're successful," Fowler says. "But, to date, the biggest achievement for me is turning Cardiff University from a very social side to one of the best university clubs in Wales, if not the UK."
When he first arrived at the university, Fowler struggled to field a fully competitive first XV, while the gulf between that side and the seconds was vast. As the city of Cardiff improves in all aspects, the rugby talent attracted to the university is steadily increasing. If anything, there are now too many players competing for too few teams.
"We've got a number eight coming from the Harlequins Academy next year," says Fowler, who already has one eye on next season. "We've also got Steffan Jones, a big winger who has been playing for the Wales 7s. The talent is really coming through now."
Here is where things get exciting. "In the next month we will be looking to announce a player development link between Cardiff University and Cardiff RFC," reveals Fowler. "When that's up and running, we'll be able to look at reintroducing Cardiff Youth, so our Freshmen will go and play for them. All our better players will play for the first team. If they're not selected for the firsts, we'll reintroduce Cardiff Rags [the club's second team], so there will be a player pathway all the way through."
Any old school Cardiff fans will be delighted with Fowler's ambitions - not surprising, given he is one of them.
"The great thing is that Cardiff University and Cardiff RFC are two institutions synonymous with excellence," he says. It means there will be a means of recruitment and a ready-made pathway through which players can progress. The close proximity of the university and the Arms Park club make it all the more logical. "I'm a Cardiff boy. To coach at the university and at Cardiff RFC is very humbling."
When I suggest that he is theoretically only one step away from a job within the regional set-up, he makes no bones about it being an aspiration of his.
"It's funny, I spoke to [Blues coach] Justin Burnell about this the other day. He spoke to me about the interest surrounding the Cardiff RFC position. You've got a lot of players retiring now, who think they've got the right to go to the top level of the game straight away. While I'm sure they have in some respects, such as skills coaching, I'm a firm believer that, in all walks of life, you've got serve an apprenticeship."
"I believe I've done that. You tend to learn from the hard lessons very quickly. If it's too easy, too quick, you don't get the opportunity to learn from those lessons. If you look at Justin Burnell, he stopped playing and went from coaching Llantwit Fardre to Pontypridd. Justin did it the hard way, as did [fellow Blues coach] Gareth Baber."
Fowler also admires former Wales and Lions prop Dai Young, a past Blues coach now at London Wasps. "A lot of people don't know that he did a lot of coaching at Abercynon before he took the Blues on."
Fowler's primary aim next season is to keep the university in the Premier A league. From a Cardiff RFC perspective, he acknowledges that, without disrespecting the coaches, finishing ninth in this year's league is not good enough.
"For them not to be in the top three or four every year is absolutely criminal, so I'm looking to lean on the university, the Blues and all the rugby clubs in and around the city to make Cardiff great again."
Just when you thought Wales was too small a country for another rivalry, two teams are building themselves up to become the university equivalent of 'El Clásico'. The Welsh Varsity match between Cardiff and Swansea has been known to pit brother against brother, and friend against friend.
Swansea, triumphant in the last two Varsity meetings, have won ten from fifteen since this unique event kicked off in 1997. (There has only been one draw: 10-10 at Cardiff Arms Park in 2001.) Cardiff's four victories, however, were achieved in the space of seven years, from 2002 to 2009 - an indication of increased competitiveness.
Cardiff only gained promotion to the top British Universities league last year, and while many expected them to drop straight back down, they have thrived on the challenges posed by such established sides as Bath, UWIC and Hartpury. So much so, in fact, that they ended the season in third place: the top Welsh side in the league. On their way, they beat Swansea in both home and away fixtures and, in a feat that I believe makes them favourites at the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday, they became the first Cardiff University side to beat cross-town rivals UWIC.
Busloads of Swansea University students will arrive in Cardiff on Wednesday morning. You'll know them from their green 'Varsity' t-shirts and general air of merriment. The streets of the city will run red as well as green, with Cardiff University's student body out to compete with a Swansea counterpart equally renowned for its carousing. It could be an anthropologist's dream, studying this demographic in its natural element: like a more mature Lord of the Flies, if they'd managed to put together a sports day on the island.
True story: a friend of mine was at a Varsity match supporting his fellow Swansea alumni around a decade ago in the Arms Park. Upon leaving the ground, he was accosted by a group of Cardiff University fans who called him and his friends 'Jack b******s' (Jack being the slang word for somebody from Swansea), little knowing that these boys were actually native Cardiffians. They ended up brawling two minutes away from his mother's house in Riverside, in the shadow of the Millennium Stadium: a rare but majestic example of passions running over.
That's the peculiar thing about Varsity games: it's not about where you're from -I'd wager that a bigger chunk of the fans are from England- but which university you're affiliated with. I know many a Cardiff soul born in the city who will be supporting Swansea because they have studied there.
The rugby match is a culmination of a day of sports held in the capital city. Given the back seat sport appears to be taking at an educational level these days, the Varsity is a reassurance that not all young people in Britain are wasting their precious window of athletic prowess in front of Call of Duty: Rwandan Genocide and greasy pizza boxes.
As well as the showpiece at the Millennium Stadium, games will be held at the Welsh Institute of Sport and Pontcanna Fields. Besides the more obvious events such as football, netball and hockey, the universities will also be competing against each other in lacrosse, tae kwon do and the paradoxically named Ultimate Frisbee (a game I'm told doesn't include explosive devices or razor-edged Frisbees).
As with last year's Varsity, the match is being broadcast live on S4C. This is a feather in the cap for the Welsh-language channel, which can proudly boast among its recent stirring accomplishments a farming version of The X Factor. As well as the roaring crowd, being on television adds an extra dimension for these players, many of whom will be looking to impress some of Wales's top coaches.
The carnival-like environment of the Varsity match is more reminiscent of a sevens tournament than a game of rugby union, which makes it all the more special.
One player who has experienced a rich and diverse tapestry of rugby in a short space of time is Cardiff University forward Arthur Ellis. At junior level, the Londoner played for Richmond, before being offered a place at another highly distinguished city club, Wasps, at the age of eighteen. From there he returned to his Welsh roots (his father Gwyn, once a Neath player, was also no stranger to Varsity rugby, having been an Oxford Blue), representing Newport Gwent Dragons alongside older brother Hugo. Since last season he has been enjoying life with the Bridgend Ravens, which, along with the former England Under-20 player's past experiences, has helped the 21-year-old in his preparations for the Varsity.
"Looking back at it now, the players I've managed to play and train with is staggering," says Ellis, recently converted from hooker to openside flanker. "People like Phil Vickery, Joe Worsley, Raphael Ibañez - the list is endless really. I still remember it now, being in that environment with them; how hard they trained was incredible to see."
Now in a battle against relegation and financial uncertainty, London Wasps are increasingly looking like a fallen empire, with Heineken Cup and Premiership wins a distant memory. "It's really sad to see them in the state they're in," he says. "I really hope they get out of it, because if they go down that could be the end of them. They've got no real assets behind them; they don't own a training ground or the ground they play at. All they have is their Premiership status."
In his first year of studying Business Management at Cardiff University, Ellis should have more than a few ideas about how a struggling club like Wasps can recover. While he hasn't left his house to be greeted by a new sports car with the key in the ignition, as some American collegiate athletes are accustomed to, the university does assist its players with funding for practical things such as gym membership.
Given the level of excitement surrounding the Varsity match on Wednesday, do any of the rugby boys experience the so-called 'Big Dog on Campus' effect? "No one knows me around campus at all," he admits, somewhat ruefully. "Nobody turns their head when I walk into Costa Coffee, nobody in my lectures knows that I play rugby."
Something that could change if Cardiff turn the tide in the Varsity after the last two defeats to Swansea. "That depends on how I play! People will know me if I play terribly, but hopefully for the right reasons we might get some recognition."
When Ellis says that Cardiff University have got an incredible team this season, you sense that he actually means it. While he is loath to single out any players, we discuss the likes of captain and Cardiff Blues-bound tighthead prop Jake Cooper-Woolley ("a really destructive force"), former Dragon and Wales U20 number eight James Thomas ("a class player" - also Ellis's housemate) and Welsh Students inside centre Ross Wardle ("he's one to look out for: big and physical but also a good distributor").
Warren Gatland was evidently impressed by Cooper-Woolley after his performance in Cardiff's 2010 loss to Swansea at the Liberty Stadium. In the Cardiff changing room after the match, the Wales coach said in a just-kidding-but-not-really manner that he'd "like to have a word with your tighthead". At the time, Cooper-Woolley, a proud Englishman, told me that he'd never entertain the notion of playing for any other country, but Gatland has been known to be persuasive.
"You never know with Wales. A few good games for your region and you're in the Welsh squad," suggests Ellis. We know what happened to another Englishman who joined the Blues not so long ago (though, at over 120kg, Cooper-Woolley might not have quite the right physique for show jumping).
If you thought I was being a bit a bit over-dramatic with my opening 'friend versus friend' gambit, it turns out Ellis will actually be playing against one of his best friends on Wednesday. Jonathan Vaughan is Ellis's teammate at the Ravens, and will be packing down at blindside flanker for Swansea University. He describes his friend as "one hell of a player and an unbelievable tackler, so hopefully he doesn't smash my shins because he likes to go low".
The Swansea link doesn't end there, because the forwards coach at Bridgend is none other than Richard Lancaster, head coach of Swansea University. Hence Ellis will be playing against more than one familiar face. "We've tweeted and texted each other," says Ellis. "They've been working really hard in preparation, as have we. They are my friends at the end of the day, so it should be good playing against them, what with the little niggles and stuff."
The only thing that appears to be majorly concerning Ellis in the run-up to the Varsity is which boots he should wear: "I've got a choice of electric blue or black and orange. Hopefully I can do them justice by scoring one or two tries." It's not an impossibility, given that the speedy forward scored in that famous victory against UWIC.
Having said this, Ellis will be relaxed about playing in front of thousands of screaming voices because he has experienced the infamous hostility of South American rugby fans. During the 2010 IRB Junior World Championship in Argentina, England faced the host side in Rosario. "I forgot how much the Argentineans still really hate the English," he says. The team was subjected to aerial bombardments throughout the match - though thankfully not of the kind seen in the Falklands that had presumably caused such animosity in the first place.
Here, the worst Ellis can expect is being exposed to the jiggly bits of the streakers that have been known to emerge from the crowd during these grand occasions. He has played in some of rugby's biggest venues, including Twickenham, but believes "nothing really prepares you for the Millennium Stadium".
How does he cope with mixing rugby and studying at one of the best business schools in the UK? "It is tough," he confesses. "Bridgend is quite far away, so I have to factor in a lot of time on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and on Saturday. It eats into a lot of work and revision time, but I love playing rugby."
While doing my research prior to this interview, I browsed Ellis's Wikipedia page - this blog is built on a foundation of journalistic integrity, after all - and found that he had some peculiar sponsorship deals. To quote the entry, these include 'Cherryade, Lilt and Nobby's Nuts. It is estimated that Ellis makes around £13 a week from these endorsements.'
"It's a good deal," he laughs. "They're getting me cheap!"
You don't have to be a student to enjoy the spectacle that is the Welsh Varsity. While I can't be seen to condone taking time off work to go and watch these students take part in an exciting day of sport (and drink, let's get real here), if you do happen to feel 'a little under the weather', you'd be better served spending the day out in the open rather than being stuck in the office, installing Adobe Acrobat Reader for the umpteenth time this week.
If you are one of those who feel morally bankrupt at the mere thought of feigning illness to avoid work, take heart in the fact that the rugby kicks off at 7pm.
It's going to be a magnificent day for British sport. Don't miss out.
Cardiff University Varsity Squad:
1. Bradley Thyer 2. Ross Grimstone 3. Jake Cooper-Woolley (captain) 4. Nicholas Huntley 5. Craig Lodge 6. Jordan Wood 7. Arthur Ellis 8. James Thomas 9. Jonny Macdonald 10. Cameron Pimlow (vice-captain) 11. Rhys Howell 12. Ross Wardle 13. Elliot Jones 14. Will Jones 15. Charlie Simpson
Substitutes: 16. Geoff Lewin 17. Jamie Pincott 18. Llewelyn Jones 19. Lee Bray 20. Rhys Luckwell 21. Alex Devereux 22. Matthew Purcell 23. Steffan Morgan 24. Max Woodward 25. Joe Casella
Location: Millennium Stadium. Tickets cost £10.00. Entry: 17.30 (19.00 K.O.)
For more information, see welshvarsity.com
They say you should never meet your heroes, and it's a sentiment that probably applies to Gavin Henson and myself. Much as I admire him as a player -more than many other people at the moment, it seems- something tells me that I might get the mother of all letdowns if I met him on a night out.
Because this is when Henson seems to be at his worst. People may wonder, If you can't hold your drink, why drink at all? I know many people that can't sing, but it doesn't stop them doing it. Drinking should be an enjoyable experience; it's just hard to know when to stop for some people.
During the Grand Slam celebrations seven years ago, Henson famously got in trouble for doing damage to the toilets of the Yard Bar in Cardiff city centre. The bar is owned by Brains Brewery, who were then sponsors of Wales, and the story goes that Henson signed a cheque to pay for the damages addressed not to Brains, but to 'Brians'. The cheque is now apparently framed in the brewery's headquarters.
Those of us who've had our drunken regrets have committed embarrassing acts in relative anonymity. But if you are one of Wales's most famous sportspeople travelling on a small plane from Glasgow to Cardiff, chances are you should be on your best behaviour because you're going to get recognised.
Henson has made the Blues' task of trimming down their budget all the easier with his dismissal. It's been said that they took a risk by signing him, and that he has thrown the opportunity back in the region's face. But how much of a chance did they really give him? When Jamie Roberts left the field injured at Firhill on Friday night, Henson came on as a replacement... on the wing. With 15 minutes left to play. You don't play an individual with the playmaking talents of Henson on the wing. Did this influence how hard he hit the bottle that night and the following morning?
Up until this point, Henson's win ratio with the Blues was good, and he played an important part in victories over sides such as Ulster and London Irish. There were some injuries during his time with the region, but nothing to indicate that this wasn't a player worth sticking with.
As it is, Henson might be the first of many backs to leave the Blues. Alex Cuthbert might have regretted pledging his undying loyalty to the Cardiff region upon seeing the offer Toulon put on the table for him, while Leigh Halfpenny and Jamie Roberts are forever being linked to big-name clubs outside of Wales.
Those who understand the value of having a dynamic forward platform might not blame them if they did leave. Two of Blues' long-time props are headed to pastures new (Gethin Jenkins to Toulon; John Yapp to Edinburgh), and hooker Rhys Thomas is moving to London Wasps.
While the few recognisable front-row players that remain are good, the strength in depth in this vital area is worryingly lacking. The word is that the Blues academy is producing very few promising scrummagers, which would be acceptable if they had the ability to sign some experienced players.
Sadly, with Jamie Roberts out for up to half a year with a knee injury, coupled with the Henson fiasco, Cardiff Blues' trip to Leinster this weekend for the Heineken Cup has been made twice as hard as it already is - which is very hard indeed.
THE BOOK THAT LAUNCHED A THOUSAND COLUMN INCHES
In 2005, the release of Henson's infamous book, My Grand Slam Year, was viewed by stuffy members of the rugby Establishment as a damnable move by this brazen newcomer. It didn't make a difference to them that it was exactly the sort of thing that might get youngsters not only reading, but reading about rugby.
The blurb on the back of the book, from the Observer, tells you all you need to know about the impact Henson was having on rugby at the time: "Henson has almost single-handedly ushered the Welsh game out of the age of scrubbed-scalp, gap-toothed boyos into the new one of Cool Cymru."
While fully aware that such books are mostly ghost-written, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. There are some very funny passages in it. Take the team-building exercises -or, as Henson puts it, "the weird stuff"- for the 2005 Lions tour, which highlighted the difference in upbringing between the Welsh and English players.
Told to form groups, the Scottish, Irish, English and Welsh players are asked to act out role-playing performances in front of the cameras. Henson is immediately squirming with embarrassment:
"I wasn't the only one who felt uncomfortable. Lots of other boys were, too. Gareth Cooper, our Wales scrum-half, was hating every minute of it. In fact, he hates that stuff even more than I do. Of course, some of the English boys were loving it. They'd probably done it before every week at public school."
You only need to look at Welsh rugby players when they appear on A Question of Sport to see what Henson is referring to. Whereas Matt Dawson (former England scrum-half and Royal Grammar School alumnus) and the like exude confidence in public speaking, the Welsh players can often seem reluctant to be outgoing and crack jokes.
Amazingly, in another chapter Henson says: "I'm 23 now and no longer considered a youngster making his way in the game. I've got this fear that one day a young kid will come along and run rings round me -make me look and feel like an old man- and that's probably going to be the day I retire."
From what we've seen of him in his recent outings in a Blues jersey, there's nothing to suggest age is affecting his game, especially with the two years he has taken out of the game. Jonny Wilkinson believes the longevity of his career has been enhanced by his enforced lay-offs, and there's a man who knows the meaning of the word 'injury'.
The careers of Wilkinson and Henson couldn't have taken a more different path. You couldn't say that Wilkinson eschewed publicity because, like Henson, he had several high profile and lucrative commercial contracts. What Wilkinson successfully achieved was complete image control -limiting his availability to the media considerably- where Henson, or his agent, appeared to make some pretty unwise choices (anybody remember those Bingo adverts?).
Wilkinson also released a host of books, but most were to do with how to play the game. He admirably saved saying anything of interest until his international career was over but, up until the release of his autobiography last year (during which he signed books for six hours at the RFU shop), tomes such as Tackling Life and My World were just plain boring. Sorry, Jonny.
Wilkinson's supposed successor to the England fly-half throne, Danny Cipriani, never stood a chance in the eyes of the English public. Like Henson, Cipriani had a celebrity girlfriend, has fallen foul of coaches, fought with and irritated teammates (as a 19-year-old, he turned up to his first England training session in a Ferrari), and was a marquee signing for a foreign club.
Such activities are rites of passage for footballers. Rugby is less forgiving.
While the 2005 Lions tour failed to make the most of a Wilkinson-Henson double-act, the opportunity arose again in 2011. Henson was to join rugby's Golden Boy (a nickname he didn't get because of a tanning regime) at Toulon, after a recce at Saracens proved fruitless, in spite of the surreal footage of him doing an impressive 'worm dance' in front of delighted teammates.
In the games he played, his performances were good (but, then again, this has rarely been the issue with Henson). He is alleged to have gotten into a drunken scuffle with former Wallabies scrum-half Matt Henjak, and possibly other members of the Toulon side. Nobody reported at the time that Henjak is no angel himself, having once broken a teammate's jaw in a barroom brawl while a player at Western Force.
Regardless, Henson's time in France was over. Alcohol had gotten the better of him once more.
TV KILLED THE RUGBY STAR
If his book was considered unwise -he was made to apologise to his teammates; his ghostwriter, Graham Thomas, was a catalyst in the breakdown of communication between coach Mike Ruddock and captain Gareth Thomas- it was the television career that really got up people's noses.
The argument goes both ways: if you can't blame a player for taking a bigger paycheque in France, can you blame him for taking a wedge for going on a reality TV show (one that could possibly ensure longevity in a post-rugby world)?
In my opinion, he came across well in shows such as 71 Degrees North (apart from a dodgy moment when he angrily threatened to slit some huskies' throats after losing a task). The morally vacuous The Bachelor we could have done without, taking the cringe factor to a new level as it did - and that was just from the acrid desperation of the female contestants. He was a breath of fresh air for Strictly Come Dancing viewers, whose only other glimpse of a six-pack on the show came from that miniscule whirling dervish from Eastern Europe.
It's sad that a large number of people in the UK who know the name Gavin Henson won't know him for his rugby, because when fully fit, he is outstanding. He was instrumental in Wales winning two Grand Slams, a feat made all the more incredible because, at the time, Wales didn't have strength across the board, unlike our recent champions.
He is a complex figure, as we find all the greats usually are. Of course, I don't know what Henson is like as a person. If he is arrogant, then you'll find there's someone like that in every team and you accommodate them accordingly - especially if they are talented. But I'm glad some notable players have come to his defence. One, Blues centre Casey Laulala, tweeted about Henson's in-flight actions: "It wasn't bad at all. Been blown out of proportion. Club are just amateurs dealing with things."
Though Laulala later removed his tweet, he can afford to be honest about such issues given that he is soon to be moving to Munster. I don't doubt that many outbound Welsh players will soon be passing judgement on the state of rugby in Wales once they are on the greener side of the grass.
Another player to comment on the Henson saga is Ryan Jones, a man who has shown that your best rugby can be achieved in your thirties. Jones tweeted: "No idea what's happened but wish the Henson headlines were about his rugby, at his best probably the most gifted player I've played with!"
You might already have read Mike Ruddock's verdict on the matter. He condemned the Blues for leaving Henson "out to dry". Two of Wales's most successful coaches in the professional era clearly value Henson as the key to a successful side, and I imagine Warren Gatland desperately wanted him at the 2011 World Cup. So what went wrong at the Blues?
I get the distinct impression that some of those in charge of the Blues didn't want Henson there. If it has anything to do with his personality, then that's sad. We need only look at football to see what a toxic personality truly looks like. Carlos Tevez continues to play at Manchester City, regardless of his shocking attitude to the fans and manager alike. Closer to home, we have Craig Bellamy, who still gets treated as a necessity to Welsh international football, despite a back catalogue of transgressions including: smacking a mild-mannered Norwegian teammate on the legs with a golf club; various violence allegations, including one made by two women in a club in Cardiff; and slapping a pitch invader in broad daylight. (He was never going to match Eric Cantona's flying kick on a Crystal Palace fan, but a slap?)
For Henson's off-the-field actions, maybe fans reserve the right to be judgmental, but on the field, he has been nigh on peerless in the Welsh number 12 jersey. It is to our good fortune that, in his absence, along came a certain Jamie Roberts. Roberts won a Lions Man of the Series award, a feat achieved by another Welshman, Scott Gibbs, 12 years previously in South Africa. In what now looks like a cruel twist of fate, Gibbs was born in the same village as Henson in Bridgend, played in the same position, and both were teammates during the Ospreys' formative years.
Henson, unlike Gibbs and Roberts, has yet to experience the joys of a Lions tour (New Zealand in 2005 is widely acknowledged to have been a shambles, even without taking into account the 3-0 series whitewash). More astoundingly, he has failed to make a single World Cup squad - twice because of supposed form issues, and more recently because of a wrist injury.
In 2003, Henson was informed by coach Steve Hansen that the Llanelli fullback Garan Evans (now Scarlets team manager) was to be chosen ahead of him for the World Cup squad. As detailed in Henson's book, his response was typically honest, if poorly judged:
"At that point, I just laughed. 'Garan Evans? You honestly think Garan Evans is a better choice than me?' Garan was the guy I had thrown into the perimeter fence the previous season, when I was sent off at Llanelli. He was a good fullback and versatile enough to play on the wing. But he didn't play in any other position. He was also a lot smaller than me and I felt he was physically vulnerable at the very top level."
Evans played only a few seconds of that 2003 World Cup in Australia. Stretchered off against the All Blacks after colliding with captain Colin Charvis, he was ruled out of the campaign with a neck injury. Henson wasn't called up to take his place.
2007 should have been Henson's chance to shine in a World Cup. Alas, the official excuse for his exclusion under Gareth Jenkins was failure to recover from an Achilles injury. Around this time, it was rumoured that Henson's performances in the Welsh training camp in France were abject: he was dropping balls left, right and centre. Equally damnable, I heard that these preliminary training camps were in stark contrast to the Polish trips undertaken by today's Welsh squad: apparently they were more like family holidays. Either way, Henson was a no-show at RWC 2007.
2011 saw Henson enter the Welsh World Cup training squad in the rare position of being without a club. Set to take his place within a team on the cusp of becoming something special, he dislocated his wrist in Wales's 19-9 defeat of England at the Millennium Stadium. It would have been hard for him to watch Wales's young guns perform so well in New Zealand without him.
In April 2012, the question remains the same in rugby circles: what club is going to want to sign a 30-year-old with a history of courting trouble? Then again, maybe we're asking the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking: where is the right environment to get the most from Henson?
WHO CREATED THE MONSTER?
Not all rugby fans have been so quick to turn on Henson after this latest incident. One from Cardiff tweeted that Henson has been unfairly singled out for his behaviour when other players have done far worse and gone largely under-reported: "@bbcscrumv Did you commit as much time when [player names deleted] bottled a guy as you just did for Henson throwing ice cubes? #mediabias".
Others have pointed out that he brought pride and a winning attitude back to Welsh rugby. Before the new breed of ultra-muscular Welsh backs we see today, Henson was keeping himself in incredibly good physical condition.
Sport websites and the back pages of newspapers perpetuate the celebrity tag that is these days affixed to Henson's name, just as they claim to condemn it. They built him up so they could watch him fall in classic British fashion.
It's easy for us to sit back and become armchair critics -because we assume that people on television are fair game for criticism- but what red-blooded male in his twenties would say no to getting paid to audition thirty or so good-looking women to be their 'girlfriend', as Henson did in The Bachelor? Or, for that matter, would say no to an adventure-filled trip to the Arctic Circle for 71 Degrees North? I doubt Henson has many regrets on that front, other than the time out it meant he had to take from rugby. He said he needed time off from the game to allow his injury-ridden body to recover fully from the rigours of the game.
Back in 2004, when his career was in the process of taking off, my school's rugby team attended the BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year awards at St David's Hall in Cardiff. The Welsh rugby side were there to support their captain Gareth Thomas, who was nominated for the main award. I saw Henson stood at the top of a flight of stairs in his tuxedo. He was alone, away from the rest of his teammates, gazing out of the window into the distance. With hindsight, that image of a solitary Gavin Henson has become symbolic in my mind.
If this is the end of his rugby career, I'd rather remember him as the player who helped bring pride back to Welsh rugby - not the man who has become tabloid fodder.
The dream that was Gavin Henson is over for now. Long live Gav.
To use a variation of the famous slogan: just done it. While pundits and the public alike were busy writing Wales off ahead of their opening Six Nations match against Ireland, the wheels were already in motion for their third Grand Slam in seven years. We just didn't know it yet.
If this were American football, the Welsh national rugby team would be called a 'dynasty'. Yet unlike the NFL, where franchises such as the New England Patriots operate on budgets of tens of millions of dollars, and players are evenly distributed to ensure a level playing field, Wales as a nation is at a distinct disadvantage. Statistics released during last year's World Cup showed our number of registered rugby players (50,557) is dwarfed by England (2,549,196), France (313,877), Ireland (153,080) and even Italy (66,176).
Our Under-20 national side often gets beasted by the superior experience and physicality of their English counterparts and, overall, our regions have made little impact in their quest for domestic league glory (Ospreys aside), much less the coveted Heineken Cup. By the same token, we have only four teams compared to England's 12 and France's 14.
The time to analyse how such peculiarities can culminate in the stellar explosion of Saturday afternoon can be saved for another day. Wales have won the Grand Slam. These are words I've desperately wished to write since March 20, 2011.
Wales, very much to the fore after their cliff-edge win over Ireland, made the tournament theirs to lose thereafter. Those unconvinced by their claims of superior fitness were soon left in no doubt that the Welsh team had the engine of a sports car in the body of a Humvee. They got stronger as games went on. France promised the world in their first game against Italy, and who among us wasn't convinced they would be the biggest challengers to the title along with Wales? They saved their best game till last, but it still wasn't enough. England made the underdog tag their own, playing with the sort of hard-done-by courage that Ireland used to play with not so long ago. For Wales, it was tense. For France, it was scary. For Ireland, terrifying. Ireland couldn't have imagined a worse result than fourth in the table, but against England, and in a game I imagined they would stroll through, they came up seriously short. Where now for a team with so many stars, and yet so little to show for it? Despite patches of strength from their forwards (namely against England), Italy were predictably short of firepower in their backline, but must be grateful that their one win came against the only other team equally incapable of winning having an off day. Scotland have three quality scrum-halves, but that means nothing when they have no outstanding fly-half to pass to. I can't help but feel sorry for them. Same old, same old for the bottom two teams.
A FLANKING PHENOMENON
The nature of the game these days is such that most forwards play through injuries. As such, we must hope that these Welsh warriors can keep their bodies intact long enough to challenge for the 2015 World Cup in England and, for many of them, the 2019 competition in Japan.
Dan Lydiate, recently named Six Nations Player of the Tournament, is testament to the human body's levels of endurance. The worst of his injuries once left him temporarily paralysed after a neck injury, and in light of his recent performances we should be giving him the nickname 'Lazarus'.
It is telling that captain Sam Warburton, always ready with a compliment for his teammates, said of Lydiate: "I've never seen anybody in so much pain after a game. Afterwards his body is a mess. He doesn't feel pain during a game - he has the heart of a lion."
Wales now have a squad of lions. In more ways than one.
Strength in depth has forever been an issue in Welsh rugby since the game went professional. Having said that, some bolters emerged during the Six Nations when some of Wales's frontline players were injured. It made me wonder what the squad would look like if we had to replace all the starting players from that final match on Saturday. (It should be pointed out that I'm thinking more if there was a flu outbreak in the camp; not in any morbid We Are Marshall (never saw it), plane crash sort of scenario.)
While some selections might seem obvious -picked as they are from the wider Wales squad- you decide if you think I've been sat next to the dodgy heating system for too long. Should Gavin Henson be in there? Do you trust James Hook to start at ten, unlike Warren Gatland? Are the backs too lightweight compared to the starting backline? Is Harry Robinson anywhere near ready to play international rugby? I would also love to see any of your wildcard choices in the Comments section.
Alternative Wales XV
15. Liam Williams (Scarlets) 14. Harry Robinson (Blues) 13. Scott Williams (Scarlets) 12. Ashley Beck (Ospreys) 11. Aled Brew (Dragons) 10. James Hook (Perpignan) 9. Lloyd Williams (Blues) 8. Andy Powell (Sharks) 7. Justin Tipuric (Ospreys) 6. Aaron Shingler (Scarlets) 5. Bradley Davies (Blues) 4. Luke Charteris (Dragons) 3. Craig Mitchell (Chiefs) 2. Ken Owens (Scarlets) 1. Rhys Gill (Saracens)
THE GUTTER PRESS
The Daily Mail chose to report Wales's Grand Slam success in a rather different manner to that which we might have expected, and the players deserved. (If you are a regular visitor the Mail Online, you'll perhaps know why it's already the most visited newspaper site in the world, recently overtaking the New York Times.) In what appeared to be a photographer's effort to go deliberately out of their way to find some unglamorous, drink-fuelled money shots, they published a gallery of post-Slam revelling drunkards in the St Mary and Caroline Street areas of Cardiff. Reportage of such renowned locations is beloved of the Mail, ever the touchstone of morality. So it was that we were given glimpses of skimpily dressed girls and guys lying in a bed of chips. (Didn't the Wall Street Journal cover all this two years ago?)
What many Mail readers -mostly middle-aged women- aren't to know is that this is a standard Saturday night in Cardiff. Caroline Street (aka 'Chippy Lane') is a thoroughfare for inebriants seeking nourishment: if you go down there of a Saturday night, you know what you're in for. To say the article was unimaginative is the understatement of the century. Cardiffians don't need their treasured Welsh team to win a Grand Slam to party like twas 1999 - but it helps.
Following the outcome of the Six Nations on Saturday, some of the headlines in the following day's broadsheets might as well have read: 'Wales win Grand Slam - but look how well England did!'
Sadly, given the sorry state of journalism in the current economic climate, and the country's geography, Wales can't boast a plethora of broadsheets. The Western Mail is very much our rugby soapbox, so thankfully its coverage of the sport is thorough, which fans appreciate, and its famous matchday front pages were brilliant.
Interestingly, I was recently shown details which estimate that, out of 28,000 students in Cardiff, 22,000 of them read the University's weekly newspaper gair rhydd, making it one of the highest read newspapers in Wales. If you're ever around the Cardiff University campus area, I suggest you pick up a copy of gair rhydd - a great student newspaper, even if I do say so myself as a former contributor.
Back to my initial point, though. Am I experiencing sour grapes about Wales's rugby team not getting enough attention on the other side of the bridge? Maybe. Then again, Wales don't need any outsiders to give affirmation of just how special their achievement is. Their adoring fans, who flocked to Cardiff in their hundreds of thousands, have already made themselves heard.
A friend of mine, watching the match in the unglamorous confines of an oilrig off the coast of Scotland, predicted scenes in Cardiff akin to those witnessed recently in Vancouver after the home side's Stanley Cup loss. You may recall the images of June 2011, when the Boston Bruins beat the Canucks: burning vehicles, lootings, a famously incongruous shot of a couple lying in the street, kissing (below). Those of us whose knowledge of Canada is limited to the episodes of Due South we used to watch after school were shocked that mild-mannered Canadians could cause such damage.
How the tabloids would have loved to have seen Cardiff city centre on fire on Saturday night. Alas, most Welshmen and women celebrate admirably in victory and defeat - mainly with enough drink to kill Seabiscuit.
The reason sports fans worldwide love the Millennium Stadium is its central location. Unlike many other stadia in world rugby, upon leaving the Millennium you are less than two minutes' walk to umpteen pubs and bars. If this was the case in Twickenham, for example, which is slap bang in the middle of a sleepy residential area of Middlesex, the Mail might be able to splash pictures of England fans enjoying orgiastic levels of fun like those pictured in Cardiff. They would have to win the Grand Slam first, of course...
BROMANCING THE STONE
To continue a theme I quite arbitrarily started over the last couple of blogs, here's another exquisite moment of brotherly love from -who else?- the French rugby team. This time it's Clement 'Vaseline Heels' Poitrenaud giving the departing Vincent Clerc a kiss on the head. From what I've experienced on childhood trips to France, the French greet each other with handshakes and double-kisses from the age of about four, so this image should probably come as no surprise.
When you grow up in an age of trophy cabinet austerity for Welsh rugby, as my contemporaries and I did, you appreciate the good times all the more. So to have experienced three Grand Slams in eight seasons is like waiting hours for one bus to arrive... then being handed the keys to a new Ferrari.
And yet it doesn't just feel like the closing of a door on our painful World Cup exit. While you could never say the sensation in the days following our defeat of a spirited French team was one of anticlimax, neither did it entail the same hysteria as, say, 2005. We all know why: this is the seminal stage of what should be a new era of Welsh rugby. That England have also now turned a corner for the better (while the rest of the Six Nations sides are, for want of a better word, stagnant) means we could be in for an Anglo-Welsh rivalry more balanced than the one we have witnessed over the last couple of decades. Maybe a strong Wales needs a strong England to keep itself moving forwards.
Moving forwards means winning at least one Test match against the Wallabies on the Australian tour in three months' time. It would be a great coup for the WRU if they could convince the regions to give the Six Nations players ample recovery time before then, but you can see why they wouldn't. (The regions pay their established Welsh players a lot of money, yet see so little of them during the season.)
Given the Welsh connection with the British and Irish Lions coaching side of things, the conspiracy theorist in me wonders how much of a hand Warren Gatland had in organising Wales's upcoming tour, with the knowledge that the Lions will be headed Down Under almost exactly one year later. Did Gatland presuppose Six Nations success for Wales in anticipation of a Lions head coach position? He was always a strong contender as it was.
One of the greatest rugby sides in history, England's 2002-03 vintage won the World Cup on Australian soil having already defeated Eddie Jones's Wallabies at the then Colonial Stadium in Melbourne five months earlier. Assuming Wales will be well represented in the Lions squad, if they can sample success against Robbie Deans' men in June -and there's no reason why they can't, if they maintain the core of this Six Nations squad- it could set the Lions up for a potential first series win since 1997.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Between now and next year's Six Nations (I've started to count down the days already), British rugby could unearth another Richie Gray, Owen Farrell or Alex Cuthbert. The game just got even more exciting.
The other day, I happened upon a rugby match on the Blackweir playing field, which turned out to be Cardiff University's School of Biosciences versus a Combined Armed Forces student team. It was a heavenly sunny day, and I doubt there was anything riding on the game's result other than bragging rights.
Not only did most of the players look the same size and shape as rugby players of the 1970s, but they played in the same spirit too. Hence, what I assumed would be worth watching for only five minutes ended up with me staying for the whole match. Granted, one or two players looked like they would have been better served staying back in the laboratory, but their love of playing the game was evident and uplifting. And besides, both teams also boasted some very good players.
It made me wonder: with international match tickets now costing in excess of £80, it's worth remembering that you can often get just as much enjoyment from watching an amateur game in your local park. In many ways, there wouldn't have been a Wales v France at the Millennium Stadium without the sort of game going on at the Blackweir playing field just down the road.
We can say it: "Grand Slam". The gilded Wales team of the 1970s won a trifecta of Grand Slams, but victory tomorrow for the class of 2012 would go some way to putting the spirit of that era to rest. While not quite being the albatross around modern Welsh players' necks, the achievements of Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams et al has often been referred in clubhouses across the land with a suggestive air of 'how could it all have gone so wrong?'
In light of recent Welsh performances in the Six Nations -sometimes in the gutter, sometimes in the stars- come Saturday afternoon, we might be asking ourselves where it all went so right. Ryan Jones, a resurrected force for his country, indicated that a Grand Slam this year would be a different beast to those he helped achieve in 2005 and 2008, mainly because it would be more a calculated accomplishment. Wales went into this competition as one of two frontrunners. The other side, whom they face at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow, are now out of the running.
But first there is the small matter of overturning those anomalous French. Yes, Wales' recent record against France isn't good (one from the past eight), but the last time we played them in this situation we won. With a new dawn of players from all countries, these cycle of results inevitably come to an end. In the knowledge that to say you nearly beat someone actually means that you lost, it is probably best to say that Wales should have beat France at the World Cup. I certainly won't be mentioning red cards any more (this sentence excluded).
It will be a shocker for the French if they fail to win a third match in a row in the Six Nations. I like to think I'm not beholden to statistics, but here's a good one for those sports trivia buffs out there: France have only prevented an opponent from winning the Grand Slam on four occasions, back in 1954, 1965, 1982 and 1988. Let's hope they don't bring their party-pooping hats to a raucous Cardiff city centre.
Six changes to the French team smells like a desperate, last-ditch manoeuvre by Philippe Saint-Andre (apart from the enforced replacement of the injured Vincent Clerc, who was probably worried he might actually get hurt this time). Bringing in new players could theoretically inject some hunger and fresh impetus into the side. Alternately, it could be that they are throwing in some undercooked players to face a sizzling Welsh team.
Far be it from me to comment on who should be allowed to play international rugby, but am I the only one surprised to see that prop David Attoub is back in the side? This is the man who is returning from a 70-week ban after gouging Stephen Ferris' eyes in a Heineken Cup match in December 2010. (His form in the Top 14 is neither here nor there, in my opinion.) In an unhappy coincidence, his Stade Francais teammate Julien Dupuy also made a return to the French squad during this Six Nations. Former Leicester Tigers scrum-half Dupuy gouged Ferris during a separate incident in the same match (the footage is there for all to see) and received a 23-week ban. Maybe it's part and parcel of French rugby to play with people's eyes, but as the old argument goes: if that occurred on the street, somebody would get arrested.
Wales can take inspiration from the fighting talk of our nation's 400m world champion runner Dai Greene. Greene, from Carmarthenshire, was astonishingly macho when commenting on US drug cheat and potential London Olympic rival LaShawn Merritt: "I'll tell you now, I'll happily go and find him at the start and tell him to his face: 'You're a cheat and you shouldn't be here.' I'll be so motivated, so pumped up by his very presence in the race that I'd do anything I could to find myself up against him in the same leg of the relay, no matter what leg it would be."
What fighting spirit. A Welsh rugby player would never dream of saying anything so confrontational, but that's exactly how I imagine they will be feeling as they take to the field. The last time they faced the French, Vincent Clerc rolled on the ground like a worm to exacerbate a nothing situation, while I was astounded to see Sergio Parisse do something similar that resulted in Leigh Halfpenny's yellow card last week. I hope France play the game in the correct spirit tomorrow, because rugby is rugby - not football.
Midi Olympique, the French rugby journal, has taken a pragmatic approach to Saturday's game. I've spared you the shocking online translation (example: 'the Red Devils seem to fly straight to the eleventh Grand Slam in their history. But are they untouchable so far? Not sure, because defects remain in their impenetrable armor alleged'), but the paper concedes that France will struggle to compete with the physicality of the Welsh backs, and should therefore seek other means to compete. However, they then quote Saint-Andre as saying that he is out to "beef up" his midfield, which would explain the return of Florian Fritz, who partners Aurelien Rougerie in the centre.
France fullback Clement Poitrenaud (who, if you saw the 2004 Heineken Cup final between Wasps and Toulouse, you will know is Wales assistant coach Rob Howley's favourite player) has already proclaimed that his side are "not going to slaughter" against Wales. It should be pointed out here that it's not really his choice, because the French backline showed moments of sheepishness in letting Manu Tuilagi and Tom Croft score two tries in their loss to England.
The French, according to the pokey-fingered Attoub, have nothing to save but their honour. Meanwhile, Wales are playing for outright glory and the right to be hailed Kings of Europe. In this instance, honour and nobility are two different things.
Those who still believe England are in with a mathematical shout of winning the tournament have got enough optimism to fill a self-help bookshelf. They need results to go their way, but with Ireland's penchant for raising merry hell when playing the Red Rose, and Wales' desire to get the Slam, they are out of touch and out of time (Hall and Oates, 1984).
More stats for you (I've started, so I'll finish): Ireland have won the last eight of nine games with England, and have won at Twickenham in three of their last four visits. While stats aren't crystal balls, Ireland relish these games with England like no other.
Even without the brilliant duo of Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll (of whom Donncha O'Callaghan, ever the wordsmith, said: "Sometimes you get a bit frustrated when Brian and Paul are out of the squad because some people seem to think you can't tie your shoelaces without them"), Ireland can seriously derail any ephemeral English notions of truly being the fourth best side in the world.
I get the feeling that Declan Kidney has formulated a masterplan so groundbreaking that it poses a threat to the very fabric of the society of prawn sandwich-eating, Barbour-wearing, Land Rover-driving Twickenham enthusiasts.
Well, we can all dare to dream.
LOOKALIKES OF THE WEEK
When I first saw Clermont Auvergne winger Julien Malzieu warming up for a Heineken Cup match versus Leinster a few years ago, I really wanted it to be an infiltration by Bruno (alter ego of Sacha Baron Cohen), such was their similarity. I assume you know Bruno, the skimpily dressed muse of Austrian fashion designer Chrysler. He's also the self-proclaimed "biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler", but the less said about that the better.
As I've said before, I don't blame the English for getting carried away with their victory over France: they needed a boost to their morale after recent results. What I do find irksome are comments such as those from Tom Croft to the Daily Mirror: "[Wales had] been talked about massively and we took them apart for most of the 80 minutes, but let it slip."
To give you just a little taste of how Wales had the upper hand in that match at Twickenham: they were stronger at scrum time, they made three line breaks to England's one, had a better tackle completion rate and -here's the kicker- tore England apart with that scintillating Scott Williams try. Croft, one of the best blindside flankers in Europe, was actually playing in the game and so his opinion is compelling, but it's probably one that should have been kept to himself as opposed to the Mirror, not a paper renowned for its love of rugby.
In all likelihood, England are going to be a quality team very soon, but lest we forget, France aren't the best barometer of where they currently stand. This isn't to take away from their jubilation at having beaten them in Paris (a remarkable achievement), but it was only six months ago that France lost to Tonga in the World Cup, falling off tackles in a similar capitulatory manner to that which was witnessed on Sunday.
Another player to rewrite history last weekend was Mirco Bergamasco, the Italian winger who seems to prefer starting fights than playing attacking rugby. In his post-match comments, he believed that Italy had kept in touch with Wales throughout his side's 24-3 loss. Perhaps I should stress that last part: 24-3 LOSS. Such revisionism is slightly insulting to Wales, especially when you consider how little Italy set out to do in attack. Their defence was outstanding, of course, but to the detriment of actually scoring tries. All together now: boooring...
Tomorrow's match is a significant stepping stone to bigger things for Wales. Having had the spoon of World Cup final ambrosia cruelly snatched from our mouths last year, this side is now creating its own nostalgia. They might also be saving their biggest performance for last in this year's Six Nations. Win tomorrow and we can look forward to the possibility of taking an Australian scalp in the Suncorp Stadium in June. Do that and we will truly have gone where no Welsh rugby team has gone before.
Follow me on Twitter: @bazzbarrett
I know what you're thinking: what? No clichés in the headline for this week's blog? Fourty-year-old Michael Caine films seem to get referenced by unimaginative copy editors every time either All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter ('Get Carter') or Italy ('The Italian Job') are playing. This ends now.
If Wales were playing away tomorrow, we'd be reading that 'All roads lead to Rome', so thankfully you've been spared that too. The Welsh public couldn't have asked for a kinder penultimate game than Italy at home, before taking on the French next weekend. While the result against England was a little too close for comfort (we wouldn't have it any other way), and tighter than I'd anticipated, the same should not be said for tomorrow.
You can't talk about the Azzurri without paying homage to their captain Sergio Parisse: the only man, to my knowledge, who can get away with a hairline that's receding quicker than the British economy. That Parisse is ever the talking point when it comes to Italian rugby is a sign of their reliance on him as everything from battering ram to playmaker. While that's quite a derogatory statement to the rest of the team, it serves a point.
Parisse is every fantasy leaguer's dream: he scores a lot of tries for a forward, and wins an embarrassment of Man of the Match awards. He accepts the latter mostly in defeat, and while more often than not they are deserved, you occasionally feel it's a sympathy vote because the rest of his side have struggled to keep up to his high standards.
The signs of his frustration, or even disillusionment, at the lack of Italian progress were evident when he said in the run-up to tomorrow's game: "Going to Cardiff to the Millennium Stadium against this team is probably something impossible for us."
These aren't just the banal words of a captain who's playing down his team's chances of winning in the hope of springing a surprise, because the facts are there for all to see: in 20 years, they've lost 54 of their 63 matches, with one draw. Tellingly, their away win success rate is an abysmal 3%. If they were a division six club, you'd probably tell them not to bother turning up on a Saturday morning.
Then you remember the upsets they've caused -beating France (2011), Wales (2003, 2007) and Scotland (three tries in the first six minutes in 2007!)- and how that feeling of joy would have been made all the more special because of all the hardship they've endured. Italy should be treated with caution, like a Labrador that once bit your elderly grandmother, but didn't get put down because she probably smelled a bit funny and it frightened the dog. Yet there's always that nagging feeling that it could bite again...
The hirsute tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni, the only other icon of modern Italian rugby, is out of tomorrow's game with a broken rib. Parisse's fellow back-rower Alessandro Zanni is quietly impressive, but it's hard to deny that, overall, Italy are a team of plucky Terry Try-Hards. Before I face accusations of being overly patronising, I must that I don't discount the possibility that the Italians could put up a good fight tomorrow - as shown in patches in their last three games.
(Aside: I once heard a story about an Italian who was being held hostage in Iraq. Hands bound and on the floor, he was about to be executed when suddenly he jumped up, shouting 'An Italian doesn't die on his knees!' With that he bit one of his captors' faces and jumped from a nearby window to his death. I'm not sure how true the story is, but the Italian team capture that spirit.)
Their lack of consistency is down to their weak player base. I say this because if Nick Mallett -one of the greatest international coaches in world rugby- couldn't turn them into contenders, it is certainly not just a case of a bad game plan. More specifically, they are struggling to find a potent backline containing at least one world-class player, whereas Wales will arguably have five on the field on Saturday.
While Italy will be unable to replace the brilliant Castrogiovanni, Wales can afford to add another four stars to their matchday squad.
Hooker Matthew Rees, second row Luke Charteris, scrum-half Rhys Webb and openside Justin Tipuric all get the opportunity to hop on board HMS Resurgence (destination: Grand Slam?).
Rees makes his first start since agonisingly missing out on captaining Wales at the World Cup to undergo neck surgery. His regional understudy, Ken Owens, returns to the bench having played a part in defeating England at Twickenham. The switch could be seen as quite harsh, but Gatland clearly feels the need to get his Lions front row back together with immediate effect.
Luke Charteris, once known only for being close to seven foot tall, is now what Tony Soprano would call a 'made man' - his World Cup performances boosting his stocks and shares dramatically. What should have been Lloyd Williams' big opportunity to shine at nine has been robbed due to a thigh strain, and in comes Osprey Rhys Webb, between whom I predict the jersey will be fought for years to come.
I've been singing Justin Tipuric's praises for a long time. When I first saw him, I thought he reminded me slightly of Alice the Goon from Popeye (especially with those long levers of his), but he's worked such similarities to his advantage. His style of play at openside is exciting, and he is one of the players to keep an eye out for this weekend. James Hook also returns to the bench, having recovered from chickenpox (an old-fashioned sort of sickness that made a friend of mine wonder if polio was making a comeback too).
When you couple the strength of Wales' pack with the absence of Castrogiovanni, the foundations are already there for a convincing conquest; possibly even a thrashing, which Wales have rarely achieved in the Six Nations.
If England prevail in Paris on Sunday -not an unlikelihood, given their propensity for beating the French, having won five in the last six- it could be that France arrive at the Millennium Stadium having drawn and lost their last two games. But I'm not sure which is more dangerous: a French side that's been humbled, or a French side still scenting a tournament victory.
You can only feel sorry for England scrum-half Danny Care: another run-in with police, this time for being caught urinating on the steps of a hotel. The average British twentysomething male (and sometimes, shockingly, female) on a night on the town has invariably peed in public at one point or another. That's not to say that it's right to do so, but it's an inevitable aspect of life, like refugee sob stories on The X Factor or Adam Sandler making a rubbish family film. Care was unfortunate that he was caught by police in the act of relieving himself.
Some might chastise him for drinking at all after his previous indiscretions -if that's indeed what he had been doing, in light of his protestations that he just had 'a small bladder'- but in Care's line of work, it's long been accepted that going 'out out' is the best way to switch off.
It's much to these young rugby players' chagrin that they're expected to be role models at an age when they're also meant to be having the most fun. It's less acceptable to be falling out of nightclubs in your late thirties, so we can't blame young rugby stars for wanting to live the high life while they can.
I've already mentioned in a previous blog how poorly behaved some Australian rugby league players have been portrayed but, surprisingly, the American "national sport" of baseball boasts some seriously naughty boys. As depicted in the brilliant book The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo Chasing with [...] the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform - and Maybe the Best (it lives up to its title, don't worry) by Jeff Pearlman, the New York Mets took misbehaviour to another level.
These men (including Daryl Strawberry, whom many of us know from one of the greatest ever episodes of The Simpsons) now seem like evil prototypes for modern day nutters such as Mario Balotelli. One memorable scene depicts the team flying back to New York on a chartered jet. Where before such travel arrangements had seen two players (including Strawberry) exposing themselves to fellow passengers, this one turned into a riot:
"Sisk, Orosco and Heep. They were the Three Musketeers of the Mets, only this trio was as dashing as a scrum of street rats. Their collective nickname was the 'Scum Bunch,' and it fit perfectly. By day they were mild-mannered baseball players. But by night, watch out. The Scum Bunch ran the back of the plane on team flights, holding drink-a-thons and sometimes, as a result, puke-a-thons. And now the wives were here, equally indulgent but unfamiliar with the effects of getting wasted thirty-five thousand feet above ground."
What follows involves a mass food fight, cocaine being snorted in the toilet, and the players' wives throwing up in the seat pockets. All in all, the jet was a write-off ("the innards of the craft being layered in food, three rows of broken seats had to be completely removed.")
"Half the team exited wearing T-shirts and ties. Sisk wore one shoe. Fans who had waited for hours at Kennedy Airport to greet the team were shocked by what they saw. 'To have the wives in their snazzy North Beach Leather outfits, covered in vomit, it didn't make for a pretty picture,' says Mets pitcher Ron Darling. 'We were gross.'" (I wonder if the Glyn Williams bus company has ever experienced such merry shenanigans?)
I had the good fortune of interviewing Pearlman, a New York Times bestselling author, a couple of years ago. This was around the time that Tiger Woods had begun his fall from grace, and I asked him if he felt sports fans had a right to know about their idols' misdemeanours. "Just because someone's famous doesn't mean everything he does has to be public," Pearlman replied. "That's ludicrous. We've become way too voyeuristic, probably because we're bored with our own lives. Tiger Woods cheating on his wife is sad and pathetic and he should be ashamed, but it impacts me not one iota."
Danny Care peeing on some hotel steps is put into perspective by such actions as those allegedly committed by another of the New York Mets' rogues' gallery, left fielder Kevin Mitchell. His teammate Dwight Gooden wrote in his autobiography that Mitchell once decapitated his girlfriend's cat during an argument.
All is forgiven, Danny.
LIFE IMITATING ART
Photographs can be misleading, and none more so than the one depicting Wales centres Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams in a seemingly amorous clinch after beating England two weeks ago.
Pseudo-psychologist, Germaine Greer-types have called rugby 'homoerotic'. They probably assume this on the basis of seeing the odd pat on the bum, but is there a more heartening sight than two men who've been through physical hell giving each other a hug at the end of it all?
Rugby, unlike football, doesn't merit 24-hour news coverage. There are no mid-season transfers and (thankfully) no surfeit of unsavoury characters making tabloid journos happy. So checking the latest rugby news is a bit like reading a local village paper: i.e. it's full of non-stories. That's what sprang to mind upon hearing the news that Wales won't be able to play any of the top tier nations at the Millennium Stadium in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The big dogs are rumoured to be upset that a much-improved Wales might end up playing them with home advantage, where before they had no such qualms. Whether the apparent friction is down to financial benefits or just the edge it gives to Wales on the field, it looks like they'll be playing their big games in the host nation, England. And why not? We'd be annoyed if the World Cup was held in Italy, but we then had to play France in Paris.
We might also do well to remember the nightmare World Cup in 2007 when, in his first start, Berrick Barnes inspired the Wallabies to victory over Wales at -you guessed it- the Millennium Stadium.
I haven't been actively seeking the words 'Grand Slam' lately, but while flipping through a copy of The Viz (the classic British comic of toilet humour), that very phrase jumped out at me. In their dictionary of 'degenerate definitions', Grand Slam takes on a whole new meaning:
"grand slam. n. In the world of salad dodging, the fabled achievement of enjoying the holy quartet of takeaway meals in one day: McDonald's for breakfast, Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch, Burger King for tea and a dodgy kebab on the way home from the pub."
Which leads me to wonder: why didn't Mike Phillips tell those bouncers at McDonald's that he was going for the Grand Slam? (This also leads me to wonder not only about the hierarchy of bouncing -"You'll see, Ma, one day I'll be working the doors at Halfords!"- but how drunk and unruly must you be to get turned away from a fast food restaurant which is open at 3am to cater exclusively to drunk and unruly customers?)
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So here we are again, the penultimate round of the Six Nations.
I keep hearing whispered mentions of it, notes passed secretly, even a few smoke signals... The Welsh public are talking about Grand Slams. But it's important not to forget that in order to get to the mythical status of 'Grand Slam Winners 2012' Wales have first to overcome Italy and France.
The Italian team are often billed as the underdogs, the also-rans and occasionally 'an easy game'. This, as many teams have found out in recent years, is categorically not the case. The Azzurri are a formidable unit and will no doubt hurl a few challenges Wales's way this Saturday at the Millennium Stadium.
The Millennium Stadium factor is undoubtedly a massive boost for Wales, and makes home- advantage a bigger advantage for Wales than any other nation. The mark of truly great sides has to be the ability to win home and away (something the Welsh team have done with aplomb of late) and while Italy are maybe not all the way there currently, they are certainly on the cusp of making it. In other fixtures home-advantage can sometimes count for nothing and be turned on its head; games between Italy and Wales show how important that home crowd's support can be. In the first Six Nations meeting between the two sides in Cardiff, Wales triumphed 47-16. The following year the Italians lost by only 10 points. In 2002 Wales beat the Azzurri with a 24 point margin; in 2003 Italy were the victors by 30-22. Wales are rightly favourites to beat Italy this year: given their current form and stock of players they arguably should be favourites for every game in this tournament. But it's not in the Welsh psyche to get complacent... is it?
I'm particularly excited to see the magnificent Sergio Parisse do battle with Toby Faletau, the Welsh rising star. Two of the best No 8s in world rugby at the moment, these two should promise some eye-catching breaks and strong drives to name just 2 of their seemingly infinite skills. On paper Parisse's experience and undisputed classiness would look to give him the edge over Faletau, although with the Welsh pack as dominant and on-form as it is I wouldn't be willing to put any money on it.
The Italians are known for their brutal forward-pack and this has been virtually their main weapon thus far in the tournament. The Italian backs haven't been able to match the front 8, whereas the Welsh backs have, without exception, been excellent. Yes, perhaps Jamie Roberts had a quiet game against Scotland. Okay, Leigh Halfpenny wasn't as potent in the third game as he was in the second. The important thing about Wales is they have an unbelievable amount of quality strength in depth. It's impossible to displace either of the incumbent centres, but Scott Williams certainly did a hell of a job trying. Lloyd Williams and Rhys Webb are two top quality scrum halves, kept out of the first XV and off the bench respectively by some barn-storming form from Mike Phillips that has stayed strong since the World Cup. When Matthew Rees found himself injured prior to the start of the tournament Welsh hearts sank. That was nothing however, compared to how much they sank when his more than capable replacement Huw Bennett also did himself a mischief. But lo and behold, Rees's understudy at the Scarlets Ken Owens stepped up and had a great performance in the most difficult of games - England v Wales. It's difficult to find a position where Wales are lacking cover; selection headaches of this nature must be a wonderful problem for Gatland et al.
Despite all this, I still think it's much too early to be uttering those 2 words. To my mind, for the next day and a half at least, they're swear words. Don't get me wrong, I'm not superstitious. But I'll be crossing every finger, clutching my rabbit's foot and praying to anything I can think of come game day.
I don't know what will age the human body quicker: smoking ten packs of fags a day, or watching Wales play England at Twickenham. As predicted, Wales came out of the blocks as if they'd been slurping on rocket fuel during the warm-up. They dominated every facet of the game for a short period. When Mike Phillips cleverly popped the ball inside to George North on the English 22-metre line, a try looked certain. For a moment, it was England fullback Ben Foden's worst nightmare realised as he watched the genetic behemoth from the north come thundering at him. Somebody up there was smiling at Foden, because David Strettle came roaring across the field to give North's ankle 'a little tappy' (as Happy Gilmore would have it) which put a halt to the attack. Foden's shorts remained white, for the time being.
Strettle was in great form for England, with and without the ball, which only served to highlight the metaphorically absent Chris Ashton. What has happened to Ashton in the time between scoring twice against Wales in 2011's reverse fixture, and now? Statistics show he had his hands on the ball more than most, but you'd be hard pressed to remember when (besides passing it desperately to Sam Warburton). Early last year, his former Wigan teammate Kris Radlinski claimed that Ashton was "rewriting" the role of the rugby union winger. Maybe he is, but going by Saturday's performance, he seems to be doing so using crayons on a toilet wall. Peaks and troughs, I suppose.
Wales certainly didn't appear to be peaking on Saturday, but their errors don't constitute a trough either. They won at Twickenham for only the second time in 24 years with their fly-half in the sin bin at one vital stage of the game. That they outplayed an inspired England during this period (as we knew they could, following that red card against France not so long ago) is a tribute to the higher ground they have reached through the guidance of their coaches.
Before I forget to mention it, England were very good. At one point, a draw seemed the best-case scenario for Wales, 12-6 down and with Rhys Priestland yellow-carded. The cool showing of Owen Farrell means he is now drawing comparisons (perhaps prematurely) to Jonny Wilkinson, which is probably making Toby Flood nervously readjust his collar. We all know Brad Barritt's defence is immaculate, although he has yet to show the attacking instinct of Jonathan Davies, who is at the beating heart of Wales.
They gave Welsh fans real moments of panic when Wales were on the back foot. The architect of England's fast-paced attack was scrum-half Lee Dickson's tap penalties; the irony being that he could also have been the architect of his side's downfall, taking an eternity at the back of the rucks instead of delivering quick ball. Initially, it appeared to be a tactical ruse to allow the English to realign, but upon re-watching the match, there is one passage where Chris Robshaw is evidently screaming for the ball, dangerously close to his own try line. By the time the ball had reached him, not only had our clothes gone out of fashion, but it was Wales who had realigned and swarmed the English captain for a penalty. This may have been why coach Stuart Lancaster replaced Dickson for Ben Youngs just past the hour mark. Another replacement, second row Courtney Lawes, was to experience an even worse 20 minutes than Youngs.
Scott Williams, on for the injured inside centre Jamie Roberts, is still something of an unknown quantity to the wider rugby world. All they need knows is: this boy can play. Williams was instrumental in stopping another England charge-down try, this time by Mouritz Botha. Realistically, if Wales had lost the match, we would be dwelling on the moment he chose to ignore two support men outside him for an easy run-in as a factor in the loss (instead running into the deceptively strong Ben Foden). But Wales didn't lose, and when Williams chose to grab the bull by the horns -probably not just a metaphor, because he's from farming country- and stripped Lawes of the ball for a chip-and-chase try on 76 minutes, one nation leapt, while another wept.
At 19-12 to Wales, it wasn't quite over. In the last play of the game, Strettle received a sharp pass from replacement fly-half Toby Flood with what looked like enough space and time to touch down for a tough conversion for the returning (not to mention nervous-looking) Flood. But here came the heroic Leigh Halfpenny, rattling his brain throwing himself at Strettle; Jonathan Davies showed judo strength to turn the winger over; and George North was clever in burrowing his hands under the ball at the right moment.
If I was English, I would doubtless say it was a try. But I'm not, and it wasn't. Referee Steve Walsh blew the whistle for full-time: Wales had won.
It takes one hell of a forward effort to win at Twickenham, which is why it will rate as one of the finest wins of these players' careers thus far. Rarely does an England scrum go backwards, but that happened more than once on Saturday. It wasn't all one-way traffic, and Wales fought for every inch of the field with England's Tom Croft, Chris Robshaw and Geoff Parling defending as if their lives depended on it. England props Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole won't find many tougher opponents than Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins. Wales are truly lucky to have them.
Wales hooker Ken Owens showed the passionate performance that typifies the embarrassment of riches Warren Gatland has at hooker. To be a supposed fourth choice in your position and to win at Twickenham on your first start is something else. It was a day he probably never wanted to end.
Remember when Wales' second row was going to be Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Evans for years to come? We had a glimpse of what that would be like on Saturday as the Ospreys teammates went some way to fulfilling their potential as partners in the engine room. Injuries and other factors had deprived them both of the opportunity to do so until now, but Evans is back on track, ready to make up for lost time.
Finally, the back row of Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau and Dan Lydiate. They might just have learnt more in this game at 'HQ' than during any other match in their fledgling careers. While England quite rightly deserved plaudits for stopping Wales getting over the gainline, the Welsh trio were vital in containing the threat of Tuilagi (hats off to Warburton's try-saver here) and co, while their scramble defence was exemplary - especially when Dickson's tap-and-go's threatened to carve Wales up. Any way you look at this Welsh pack, it is special.
Victory for England might have been just as much a victory for the English press. I can't remember a time when an English rugby team has been so widely written off during the Six Nations. But in heaping praise on Wales -grudgingly, by some notable former England players- they had given themselves room into which a new view on English rugby could be manoeuvred, because England were never going to play as badly as they had in Italy or Scotland.
The coverage following the match was centred on England's improvement rather than Wales' win. (Wales, lest we forget, had just won the first ever Triple Crown at Twickenham.) The reasons are obvious, given that all the major publications are based in London, and their readership is predominantly English, but the newspapers have done well to keep the English populace in line with their views. Very clever indeed.
Wales face Italy on March 10th, which allows extra recovery time for those players nursing injuries. The question still remains as to how many changes, if any, Warren Gatland will make. Some might see sense in giving players such as openside Justin Tipuric and scrum-half Lloyd Williams a run-out against the Azzurri.
Warburton might be given a spot on the bench, while Mike Phillips could be one of the many Welsh players who has earned a rest. The likes of Tipuric and Williams are hungry for game time and the chance to impress, which could prove advantageous in what should be the easiest match of the tournament, but where the win will still have to be worked for.
I had anticipated centre Ashley Beck getting his first cap at some point in this Six Nations, especially with Jamie Roberts in desperate need of some respite after the brutal nature of his game. After Scott Williams' match-winning display at Twickenham, however, I imagine Beck will have to wait. That is, unless Gatland makes a wholesale midfield change, but there seems little chance or need to disrupt Wales' formations.
This isn't to play down Italy's chances, but it would take a Welsh nosedive out of the Unlucky Tree and hitting every branch on the way down for the Italians to emerge victorious against a Welsh side that has already won in Dublin and Twickenham.
Best Failed Drug Test Story of the Week:
Stories about rugby players getting banned are rarely humorous (unless it's the one about John Hopoate and his thumb, which you can Google at your own discretion), but one such tale I heard recently made me chuckle.
An international rugby team in Europe had one of its players called up to take a random drugs test. Fully aware that he had been smoking marijuana 'on the reg' in the past couple of weeks, he decided to hatch a scheme that might just have been crazy enough to work - if this was an episode of Scooby Doo.
Instead of attending the drugs test, he decided to send his brother (not a twin, but still uncannily similar, and also a player) in his place.
The magnificent/devastating part of the story is, they would have gotten away with it if some pesky member of their team's management hadn't caught wind of the situation and shopped both of them in. Needless to say, both have now received lengthy bans. Does this mean they're weeding out the drug cheats?
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What a game. What a try. What a feeling. Cymru am byth!
*More to follow tomorrow after the celebrations..*
Wales have a point to prove on Saturday.
Despite playing the best rugby in this years Six Nations by some distance many still choose to doubt this sides credentials. Scan the rugby blogs and forums and you will find plenty of people who still seem to think that this Welsh side is not the real deal.
As a Welsh rugby fan it is a little strange to type this but Wales have nothing to fear going to Twickenham. This young England side will improve but Wales have already beaten a much stronger team away from home this season in Ireland.
England will be led from the front by the so far impressive Chris Robshaw. On Saturday however the England captain will face his toughest assignment yet in an England shirt when he has to go head to head with Sam Warburton. Robshaw has impressive qualities but master of the breakdown is not one of them.
I met Robshaw last year ahead of the Amlin Challenge Cup final at the Cardiff City Stadium. Harlequins were playing Stade Francais (Robshaw led Quins to a narrow victory.) I was working for Associated Sports Images (www.asi.photoshelter.com)
and needed a picture to convey the excitement and build up to the final. Thought it might be good to have the two captains face off against each other like they have boxers do. That's how the picture below came about, Parisse vs Robshaw, I've always liked this one.
Anyway, with or without Robshaw Wales should be to good this weekend. We have so many danger men at present you can't keep them all quiet. Stop Roberts? Space for Davies. Stop Phillips? Look out for Priestland. Stop North? Best of luck with that...