The Slambusters!

By Seb Barrett on Mar 23, 12 09:58 AM in Welsh rugby bloggers
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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.

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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.

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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.

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START SOMETHING

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.

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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.

AMATEUR HOUR

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.

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