Welsh look to throw off 'nearly men' tag
February 4, 2005
Robin McBryde will be important to Welsh hopes in this year's Six Nations © Getty Images
Wales 32 - 20 Ireland Scotland 22 - 46 Wales France 18 - 24 Wales Italy 8 - 38 Wales Wales 11 - 9 England
Gavin Henson Gethin Jenkins Adam Jones Ryan Jones Stephen Jones Robin McBryde Michael Owen Dwayne Peel Tom Shanklin Gareth Thomas Martyn Williams Shane Williams
The 2005 6 Nations championships provides Wales with a golden opportunity to turn the corner in terms of results and success. For so long and in particular the past 12 months, Wales have turned in performances which have seen them come 'so close' to victory, performances that have seen the whole nation stand up and look forward with optimism and expectancy.
That buoyant feeling that keeps the whole of welsh rugby looking excitedly forward to the next challenge often fizzles out and the sounds of 'If only' echoed around the stadium, clubs, pubs and living rooms of the Principality.
Mike Ruddock's men can throw away that label of 'also rans' and turn the many false dawns of Welsh rugby into a new dawn of International success.
Many out there might think that I'm going crazy as my own playing days become a more distant memory, how, after the dismal showing of the Welsh regions in Europe , can I make a prediction that has for so long been pie in the sky talk. I must admit that in some aspects of my life, I'd probably agree with you! But when it comes to drawing my conclusions on predicting Welsh success on the rugby field this season, I honestly think I have very good grounds for what I say.
So why? It's true that Wales have given England , New Zealand (twice) and South Africa a fright in the past 18 months! They played a style of rugby that befits the traditional values of the game in Wales ! They've defended with both purpose and organisation, and, they've lasted the pace! All things that have helped increase the optimism and given renewed expectation for the coming tournament. But these are all things that we've seen glimpses of in the past, but things that have, quite frankly, given us the same old false hope.
2005 will, I believe, see this all change because Wales are getting it right and have now become as professional as our neighbours across the bridge. Professionalism was not just about being paid to play or to spend the day training. Professionalism encompassed the whole life of our player. It was about ambition and desire, putting all else one side to ensure potential was reached. Wales have taken 10 years to succeed in understanding the professional game and to instil those virtues into its talented crop of players. And now that it has, I believe we have the mindset to achieve our dreams of matching up to the best the rugby world can throw at us.
"Team Wales " as Mike Ruddock refers to the players, staff and support team who he has assembled for this campaign have all bought into 'professionalism'. They are ahead of the Regions by some distance in their approach and preparation for International rugby. An approach though that is being filtered back to our domestic game to ensure continuity and future success. I have been very fortunate of late to have spent some time with 'Team Wales'. It's been time that has made me realise that the corner has already been turned! Andrew Hoare has taken the fitness and conditioning of the squad to another level, Scott Johnson leaves no stone unturned in his quest for perfection from his backline. Clive Griffiths analyses and implements a coordinated defensive system and, whilst Mike Ruddock pulls it all together, he also ensures that set piece play and secondary possession is guaranteed.
It's a team who work 100% together, a team with one common cause and a team who genuinely believe in what they are setting out to achieve. But I've missed out probably the most important ingredient of all, the players of course, and it's here that I've seen the biggest and most positive change. For so long the players were purely used as individuals to put into practise the thoughts of the coach and his coaching team. They often never asked or questioned his views, never understood or had the knowledge as to why they had to reach a fitness target set. They were often like robots, obeying their master's request. How time as changed. Mike Ruddock's squad are professional in almost every sense of the word. They think for themselves, they understand the responsibility they have been given and their ambition and desire falls into the 'Team Wales' common cause. I have sensed that this side, under the guidance of Mike Ruddock and the leadership of the outstanding Gareth Thomas have already turned a huge corner and I believe that the challenge that lies ahead will see them turn another.
This 6 Nations campaign provides Wales with a glorious opportunity. A home start against an injury hit England will be the perfect chance to set out their stall and generate the confidence and belief a 'big win' will bring. Even without the inspirational Colin Charvis and Martin Williams, Wales have enough quality to see them past a hurdle that has for so long been unimaginable. Young Osprey Richie Pugh has given sufficient indication this season that he has what it takes to make a mark on the International field if asked to fill Charvis' boots at openside. Experience he may lack, but energy, pace and hunger he possess in abundance. Elsewhere, the pack can take on England , at set piece play in particular. They needn't and shouldn't be in awe of what England has to offer. Behind, Dwayne Peel should ignite a backline full of adventure and purpose with Jones, Henson, Williams and Gareth Thomas a threat to any side. This is the perfect chance, the very best chance that Wales have had to start off the championship with a win and I believe it will be the catalyst for future success.
Italy in Rome will be the next port of call, and with the utmost respect for John Kirwan and all that he has achieved with such limited resources, Wales should not have too many issues in dealing with the Azzurri.
France in Paris is probably the most daunting proposition Wales will have to face. Les Bleus are a formidable outfit and probably possess the greatest all round talent in the championship. But as we've seen so often in the past, they can be beaten. If Wales enter the Stade de France arena on the back of two wins, they could well have the belief to help them bowl over Fabien Pelous' side. It's probably Wales toughest challenge of the campaign, but a challenge they can face up to, Gareth Thomas, Stephen Jones and Gareth Llewellyn have the inside track and although daunting it maybe, impossible its not.
The trip to Murrayfield has bared very little fruit in the past but in recent seasons, Wales have fared far better and the intimidating atmosphere of old has subsided. Scotland hold no fears for Wales and shouldn't. Wales have far more to offer in every department and should achieve another comfortable success over their Celtic cousins.
And then the finale - Ireland in Cardiff . Ireland have every chance of clinching the title and maybe the Grand Slam this season. They have Italy and Scotland away in the first two rounds of matches and with the likes of O'Connell, O'Kelly and Foley upfront and the vision and mercurial skills of O'Gara and O'Driscoll behind, two wins are virtually guaranteed. Lansdowne Road will then host England and France and as we've seen so often in the past, even the very best come unstuck under the intensity and passion of what seems the whole of the Emerald Isle. Ireland , to me, are the favourites for this years title and the 19 th March at the Millennium Stadium will be a contest of huge proportions.
If Wales are to win and end decades of failure against Ireland at Cardiff , they need to draw on all their resolve and be prepared to meet fire with fire. Wales have the ingredients to do just that, but this one for me is one I would not put good money on. With the potential of so much at stake, it's just too close to call.
Wales may not win the Grand slam, they may not even win the championship, but I feel very confident that they will win back the confidence and belief that has seen them only 'come so close' in the past. Turning in performances will now turn into results and, I feel more than ever, will see Wales turn the corner to consistent future success.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
"The thirst for knowledge has seen coaches break away from the confines of rugby and look to America." Tom Hamilton on the two-way learning process
On Saturday, New Zealand face the USA in a match that has been 40 years in the making. Tom Hamilton finds the atmosphere building in Chicago
Most modern rugby players will not know the name Ray Williams but they should be eternally grateful to him, writes John Taylor
With the All Blacks playing the USA Eagles this weekend, Craig Dowd says rugby is ready to make a professional breakthrough Stateside