Wales keep on getting stronger, fitter and better Posted over 12 years ago

Wales are two home victories away from a third grand slam in eight seasons, and while I do not want to tempt fate, achieving the feat this year would be more significant than it was in 2005 and 2008.

Wales were under new management in both those years and the campaigns developed a momentum of their own after opening day victories over England, in Cardiff in 2005 and at Twickenham three years later.

This year would be different because Wales are building on something, carrying on from last year’s World Cup when we reached the semi-final and came agonisingly close to beating France despite playing with 14 men for the last hour.

I am not taking anything for granted because Italy will be tough to crack in Cardiff on Saturday, never mind France the following week. Wales will prepare for the Italians as they have done for their first three games, focusing on what they have to do to win. There will be no complacency.

Wales are a different team from a year ago. They showed that at Twickenham, as they had in Dublin earlier in the month, coming back from six points down in the second-half to win and withstanding the loss of a player to the sin-bin.

Twickenham was the game I was most apprehensive about before the start of the tournament because it was a ground where Wales had not done well for a number of years, just one win since 1988.

It was every bit as demanding as it threatened to be. England played some good rugby and created opportunities. The key moment came when they took a 12-6 lead early in the second-half when Rhys Priestland had just been sent to the sin-bin.

Two years before, Wales had shipped 17 points during the 10 minutes when Alun Wyn Jones had been in the sin-bin and it was the moment when England would have expected to have taken a grip on the game.

They barely saw the ball and when Priestland returned, Wales’s deficit was the same as when he had left the field, three points. If anything showed how Wales have developed mentally since the training camps in Poland last month, it was how they responded to that yellow card.

They showed great composure, as they had in the final minutes in Dublin when they kept the ball for several phases in a 60-metre drive up the field that ended with Leigh Halfpenny being presented with the match-winning penalty. They know they can beat teams on fitness and that gives them clear-headed judgement when it matters.

Italy will be a test of nerve with everyone in Wales seeming to assume that the match against France will be for the grand slam. International rugby does not work like that. You have to earn your victories, they do not come free.

I played against Italy enough times to know how difficult they can be. They drew in Cardiff in 2006, a year after our grand slam, and they beat us in Rome the following year. It was only a year ago that they defeated France for the first time in the Six Nations and there will be no pressure on them this weekend.

What is good for Wales is that they virtually have full squad of players with Luke Charteris back in the squad. We were without the likes of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate and Charteris in the opening game against Ireland and Sam Warburton went off at half-time.

Warren Gatland is now picking from strength, and another difference between 2005 and 2008 is that we are not reliant on players staying fit. There is quality back-up in virtually every position and that has allowed Wales to overcome injuries to key men in each of the three games so far, Warburton in Dublin, George North against Scotland and Jamie Roberts at Twickenham. None made it to the second-half but their replacements all slotted in seamlessly.

I will make one observation about the France game. It will be their fourth match in as many weeks and they will have the disadvantage of a six-day turnaround. Wales will be fresher and they are fitter. There was a time not so long ago when we were vulnerable in the last 15 minutes against the top sides, but it is now the time when we are at our strongest.

Warren Gatland had only just started as Wales coach when we won the grand slam in 2008. He is now four years in and if Wales repeat the feat, it will be unquestionably down to what he has put in place, allowing us to kick on.

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Shane Williams played 87 caps for Wales and 4 for the Lions. He is Wales’ most capped winger and with 58 tries to his name is his country’s leading try scorer; and third on the list of international try scorers. Shane was first selected for Wales in 2000 by Graham Henry though suffered from injury and doubts over his size in his early years in the national side. He recovered from both and was part of the Wales Grand Slam winning sides of 2005 and 2008, and was named IRB Player of the Year in 2008. The diminutive winger became the darling of the Cardiff crowd as he sidestepped his way around the best defences in the world. Shane retired from international rugby in 2011 and will finish his playing career with the Ospreys at the end of the 2012 season.

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