Their finest hour (so far).

By Seb Barrett on Feb 8, 12 05:41 PM in Welsh rugby bloggers
Bradley Davies Ireland match.png


For sheer fighting spirit in the arena, look no further than Wales' performance against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. After years of classical conditioning, you would have been forgiven for thinking it was all over as Wales had a player sin-binned in the closing stages. We heard the stats from commentator Eddie Butler proclaiming that, statistically, a fourteen-man Welsh side usually concedes points roughly equal to the U.S. national debt figure.

But that's the thing about this Wales side: it's incomparable to any other. It has the freedom of not having any great precedents or standards to live up to. Triumphs in the Six Nations were four and seven seasons ago, and in between these high points were some aching lows. To put it glibly, they are blazing their own trail.

Testament to their achievement is the fact that nothing has been said of Gavin Henson recently (until now, that is), where usually he has been an ever-present gobbler of column inches. We may see him again soon, but his absence suggests that Wales are reliant on no individual.

This sentiment was made abundantly clear on the departure of Sam Warburton at half-time against Ireland. Here we go again, going down the only road we've ever known, fans of Wales and Whitesnake might have paraphrased. But not only did Osprey Justin Tipuric come on and play his own style of openside flanker, he also made some vital turnovers that kept Wales on the front foot.

As is evident, Tipuric is a different build to Warburton. Both are around the 6'2" mark, but where the latter is the embodiment of the modern muscular flanker, destructive at the breakdown and very physical, Tipuric is something else. Bendy, agile and rangy, he can get into those hard-to-reach places to steal or slow the ball down. Thankfully for Wales, both are fantastic sevens.

We mustn't forget that Wales aren't the only side flogging themselves into winning shape in training camps, but Poland has proven itself to be as much a psychological reinforcement as a muscular or cardiovascular one.

While those not of the 'Red or Dead' persuasion will choose to remember this incredible Test match for two controversial refereeing decisions, those with a true love of the sport will be aware of their having witnessed the game as it should be played. There are currently only three sides in the northern hemisphere playing pulse-racing rugby, with their respective brands very much on show on the opening weekend of the Six Nations.

France, Ireland and Wales are the vanguard for all others to follow, and with the first two set to lock horns on Saturday, we are at least assured of one grand encounter in this second episode of European internationals. Wales, conversely, will face a Scottish side for whom scoring tries is a Sisyphean task - they get so close, only to be pushed back to square one. But more on that later.

To do the treble over Ireland is something special. Jamie Roberts pronounced the game 'up there with one of the best wins in a Welsh jersey'. Having sat on a train full of jubilant Irish fans from Cardiff to London the morning after their 2009 Grand Slam win, I can see where he was coming from.

That Wales' third win in a row over Ireland came in Dublin is an even greater feat. With a host of these young Welsh players having gone through their rites of passage in far-flung New Zealand during the World Cup, the thought of an away game is conceivably not as daunting as it might once have been.

Apart from the lineout -where Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan still reign supreme as Kings of the Air- and goal-kicking -let's let sleeping dogs lie- Wales edged the battle in every facet of the game. Pride in the team's efforts are boosted further when considering the pedigree of the players Ireland boasted.

Ryan Jones at blindside flanker played his best international game since -dare I say it?- 2005. His rejuvenation is remarkable and, were it not for his likely enforced move to second row, he would have kept his place at six, with Lydiate making his return on the bench. But before I start singling out individuals, it should be pointed out that, to a man, Wales shone.

And so to the dreaded 'tip tackle', for which Bradley Davies has received a seven-week ban. Was this how France felt after they beat us at RWC, what with all the media attention focusing not on their win, but a refereeing decision? One thing that can't be said is that Wales didn't deserve the victory, having been the better side and scoring three tries to Ireland's two. And what tries they were.

George North probably doesn't need more praise than he's already been given, but what should be said is that he is the player Wales have been missing. That his introduction to world rugby has coincided with Jamie Roberts' rule at inside centre and the bane of the Irish, Jonathan Davies, embarking on a BOD-esque journey at 13 - well, that's just perfect.

Leigh Halfpenny's final kick on Sunday might just have been the making of the man. He held the weight of a nation on his shoulders and proved himself to be a winner. It must be a special feeling to realise you've made millions of people jump to their feet in ecstasy.

That there were so few scrums -a rarity in modern international rugby- made the match a perfect advertisement for the game. But you would first need to edit a couple of iffy tackles...

Did Bradley Davies see red (even if the referee didn't, perhaps aware of the hullabaloo last time Wales were red-carded) because of Donnacha Ryan's dangerous charge on tighthead prop Adam Jones at the ruck? Lest we forget, it was just such a charge by Bakkies Botha that dislocated Jones's shoulder in the second test of the 2009 Lions tour. Ryan hasn't been cited, but little has been said about his culpability. If Jones, one of Wales' most important players, had been injured as badly as he was in 2009, which incident would have caused the most outrage?

Davies, however, would be the first to admit how reckless and dangerous his actions were. Nevertheless, if Ferris' subsequent tackle on Ian Evans pales in comparison to Davies' on Ryan, then All Black Brad Thorn's off-the-ball piledriving of Springbok John Smit into the Wellington turf in 2008 is the daddy of them all. His punishment was a one-week suspension, even though he dropped Smit with such a lack of control he should think about becoming captain of a cruise liner (instead of joining Leinster, as reports would have him doing).

While not disagreeing with Davies' lengthy punishment, I can't help but wish it wasn't another Welsh player who has been made an example of once again. Rest assured, there won't be any Springbok-like 'Justice 4 Bradley' armbands in the Welsh camp - or 'Why Always Us?' t-shirts, for that matter.

It is quite ironic that, in my preview of the Wales v Ireland match, I spoke of refereeing decisions and their impact on the game. If referee Wayne Barnes won the game for Wales by awarding a penalty for Ferris' tackle, as many detractors would have us believe, then what was he doing in disallowing Ryan Jones's efforts over the Irish try line with ball in hand? Why did he allow Jonathan Sexton to take what seemed an eternity to attempt a penalty kick at goal with only minutes remaining? The outcome might make the fly-half think twice before trying such a time-wasting tactic again. But probably not.

Referees can't defend themselves like players or coaches can. They don't have the benefit of soapboxes, such as the post-match interview, which might give them unwanted limelight or put them awkwardly on the spot. The Irish shouldn't complain because the amount of questionable decisions that have worked in their favour are legion.

The heart of the matter is that, while the luck of the Irish might have abandoned Declan Kidney's side, Wales, in contrast, are beginning to make their own luck.

Irish mascot.png


While they themselves wouldn't want us to, it's hard not to feel sorry for the Scots. Because I don't want these to be famous last words, let me just say that they have the potential to cause an upset in this Six Nations. I just wish they'd used it to upset England.

Scotland Rugby must be counting down the days until Edinburgh winger Tim Visser is eligible to pull on that ever-plain national jersey. The 6'4" Dutchman scores tries for fun at club level, and that Andy Robinson signed him when he was coach at Edinburgh tells you everything you need to know. Robinson will hope results go his way enough in this Six Nations that he is still in charge by the time Visser earns his automatic spot on the wing come summer.

Despite their considerable pack, Scotland have been unable to exploit this platform for the benefit of their backs. Nothing in their last match indicated that either they or England are near the level of Wales or Ireland, but now that they have narrowly failed to beat the Auld Enemy, they will set sights on Wales. What will they see?

Having beaten a side undoubtedly more talented than Scotland on Sunday, Wales should theoretically run the Scots off the park. England posed little threat in the same way Wales will, mainly because they didn't look to run the ball wide very often, which suited the Scots and their dogged defence. Were it not for a charge-down try, the home side at Murrayfield would have won.

When Wales have beaten Scotland in the past, it's not only because they've been superior in the forwards (or at least their equal), but due to our running prowess. We now have more of that than we have had in a long time.

Scotland have a heavyweight second row pairing in Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray, and Wales' lineout needs to function more efficiently (something that has been made doubly harder due to our paucity of second rows). Wales managed to win despite Ireland's aerial advantage, but it's not something we should be comfortable with getting used to, especially when Gray is a threat with the ball in hand too.

Nitpicking aside, Welsh supporters have earnt the right to throw caution to the wind in this instance. Though Scotland will be determined and hurt -as were Ireland- this should be a real homecoming game for Wales; a chance to show that they are fiery away, but at home they are nuclear.

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