Wales triumph is more Grind than Grand Slam Posted over 4 years ago


Having reached the top of the European summit for the third time in eight seasons, Wales are aiming to conquer the bigger peaks in the southern hemisphere.

They showed little flamboyance in beating France 16-9 at the Millennium Stadium to clinch the title, kicking for territory and taking no risks in their own half. Their one try, scored by the 21-year old wing Alex Cuthbert, came after Thierry Dusautoir had been turned over on his 10-metre line.

Wales far more reflect their hard-nosed New Zealand coach Warren Gatland than they did when they won the grand slam in 2008, just a few months after he had taken charge. They have cut out the frippery and rely on calculation rather than chance.

They have also developed strength in depth. Four years ago, Gatland had to persuade Martyn Williams to come out of international retirement because he did not rate the other open-side flankers in Wales. Now he has Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, forwards who were not regulars with their regions when he promoted them.

A minute’s silence was observed before the game as a tribute to the former international back rowers, Wales’s Mervyn Davies, the captain of the 1976 grand slam team, and New Zealand’s Jock Hobbs, who both died last week.

Davies made his debut for Wales in 1969 having played a mere six matches at senior level, the number of appearances the wing George North had made for the Scarlets before Gatland capped him in the autumn of 2010.

North was given little room by France and with both teams resorting to the boot – the ball was kicked out of hand 88 times – there was little continuity. Yet not since the 1970s have Wales played with such organisation and coherence: they lost at home to France two years ago after attacking early from deep and paying for risky passes.

Now they attack when they sense something is on, which is invariably from turnover ball or a loose kick; the art of the probable. They have one of the most physically imposing three-quarter lines ever seen in the Six Nations, but there is little creativity in midfield and the outside-half Rhys Priestland is not only the main kicking option but is the one back with a range of passes.

Whether that will be enough in Australia later this year, where Wales play three Tests, is debatable. Gatland left James Hook on the bench against France because there was never a need to force the game with Wales in the lead from the 22nd-minute when Cuthbert scored his try while Gavin Henson did not break into the match 22 all tournament.

They will be options in the coming months. Gatland’s priority in the Six Nations was, after the disappointment of losing to France by one point in the World Cup semi-final, to win the tournament and Wales were a notch above the rest.

They conceded three tries, none in their last three matches, and scored 10, all through their three-quarters. Their fitness was such that they never lost a second-half: it was 6-6 against France and Wales had a kickable penalty at the end of the match which they put into touch as time was up.

Their scrum was aggressive, an area of weakness for France in Cardiff, their line-out improved as the tournament went on – they used six targets on Saturday – and they were so confident at the breakdown that even when a shoulder injury forced Warburton off at half-time, they went through a five-minute spell of picking and going that left France helpless.

Gatland said before and after the game that he wanted Wales to do what they failed to in the 1970s and beat New Zealand and South Africa. The grand slams of 2005 and 2008 were one-offs, achieved under new coaching regimes rather than built on a foundation.

This year is different, but Gatland may not be around for much longer. He will be asked by the Lions to be the head coach on next year’s tour to Australia and he will be expected to take a sabbatical from Wales for a year, effective immediately.

He kept his management team in place so continuity would not be a problem. Gatland wants the Lions job, but he is also determined to ensure Wales build on the grand slam. He and the Welsh Rugby Union will try and get the Lions to compromise on the length of the sabbatical.

England finished second after comfortably defeating Ireland, an even bigger disappointment this Six Nations than France, who were under new management and who are the one team in the tournament that does not have unrestricted access to players for its duration.

Scotland claimed the wooden spoon after losing to Italy and the two were adrift of the other four sides for the fifth tournament in succession. The 80 minutes in Rome showed why.

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Paul Rees was born in Cardiff and has been a full-time writer on rugby union since 1986, first for the South Wales Echo, then Wales and Sunday and, from 2001, the Guardian and the Observer, having contributed to the former on a freelance basis since 1988. He has covered every World Cup since 1991 and five Lions tours. When time allows, he also write on cricket, mainly Glamorgan. And away from work, he a season-ticket holder at Arsenal, watching them home and away, including the European Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris in 2006.

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