March 2012 Archives
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.
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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