November 2011 Archives
I grew up in South Wales in the 1990's, like many of us I was drawn to rugby but my early memories of the national team are not good ones. Thinking back I remember heavy defeats to England and France interspaced with the occasional flash of hope.
I came to love the sport and the Welsh side despite the lack of success, hoping perhaps that one day a team could emerge to repay all of that faith. Eventually such a team did form, the players at the core of which proving themselves good enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with the great Welsh legends of the past.
I'm speaking of course of the three great icons of the 2005 Grand Slam side, Shane Williams, Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams.
On Saturday Shane Williams will play his last game for Wales and it seems increasingly likely that both Martyn Williams and Stephen Jones already have. It's a sad thought but what remained of the heart of the 2005 side is set to be lost to rugby history.
Shanes achievements in the game are well documented. 85 caps and 56 tries speak for themselves. After making his first appearance at 22 years of age Williams spent several years out of favour with the Welsh management before exploding back onto the international stage at the 2003 World Cup. The rest, as they say, is history.
Martyn Williams will be left painfully stranded on 99 Welsh caps. So often the best player in poor Welsh sides, he is famous for his quick thinking and high skill level. Williams was also incredibly tough and uncommonly brave. It is a shame that so often this wonderful player had to express himself from behind a Welsh forward pack that imploded in front of him.
Stephen Jones is often thought of as a steadying influence in any side in which he features. His attacking play (fine tuned during a stint playing in France) is often unfairly overlooked. Also a powerful defender Jones saw off many young pretenders pursuing the red number 10 jersey.
This group of players crowning glory will always be the 2005 Grand Slam where everything seemed to come together for them. A spine of quality held the team together and around that limited but brave grafters filled in the gaps.Not much was expected of the side and yet they went on to win the Six Nations title playing the most wonderful brand of attacking, all action, rugby.
It nearly never happened. the whole thing came perilously close to falling apart on the 26th of February at the Stade De France when Wales came up against a French team in deadly and determined mood. After a bruising first half Wales were hanging by a thread tha nks to Stephen Jones' accurate goal kicking. Fearless captain Gareth Thomas was injured and had to leave the field. Wales needed a miracle, luckily on the day we had at least three.
The reason Stephen Jones isn't often though of as an attacking stand off is all to do with his running style. Broadly builtwith powerful shouldersyou will never see him glide around the pitch like James Hook. Quite simply, he looks a bit awkward when he runs.
It was this distinctive running style, combined with a mistake from Damien Traille, that began to turn the tide in Wales' favour. France continued the second half on the front foot before Traille spilled the ball. Stephen Jones collected with space ahead of him and charged down field. He must have made 50 meteres at least before the French could hall him down and Wales never looked back.
Occasionally sport can be exhilarating but never before has it been so exhilarating and equally hillarious. For Jones the drop goal was the start, he went on to win the game for Wales with a nerveless display capped with a brillaint drop goal which gave Wales enough breathing room to hang on.
Of course he was not alone in conjuring this famous win. The Williams boys had a big hand in it to. Both Shane and Martyn had endured very tough first halves where there resolve was seriously tested. Both small men in international rugby terms they were finding it hard to deal with the powerful French, Shane at the hands of the mighty Rougerie and Martyn seemingly from the entire French pack. To turn the tide both men had to revert to their strengths. Rougerie may have been to strong for Shane but Shane was to nimble for him and fed Martn Williams for a try after turning the giant winger inside out.
Martyn Williams added a second try by doing what he has always done best, being swifter of thought than the oppostion. A quick tap penalty and a stretch past the fearsome Fabien Pelous and Wales were on their way to one of the great come backs.
There were many heroes that day but for me the ones I have written about here were the most vital. For years they have been at the heart of the Welsh side through good times and bad. Stephen and Martyn may miss out on the great send off that Shane will get this Saturday but in my memories these players are so strongly tied together through their triumphs that I will always think of them standing side by side and not as individuals.