Wales secure historic Grand Slam
March 17, 2012
Alex Cuthbert goes over for his score
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Wales secured their third Grand Slam in eight years with a 16-9 win over France in Cardiff on Saturday.
Alex Cuthbert's first-half try along with the boot of Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Priestland proved to be enough for Warren Gatland's side to edge out a bullish French side and avenge their agonising World Cup semi-final loss in Auckland last October.
Les Bleus could not contain a tide of irresistible Welsh fervour, passion and emotion at the Millennium Stadium, an atmosphere that proved a fitting tribute to the late, great Mervyn Davies, Wales' 1976 Grand Slam captain, who died on Thursday. France suffered only a second Six Nations defeat in Cardiff as Wales only occasionally showed signs of nerves or tension that could easily have gripped a team containing seven players aged 24 and under.
Davies would have applauded some of the rugby Wales produced, a wonderfully refreshing approach that reaped a stunning solo try for wing Alex Cuthbert after 21 minutes, while fullback Leigh Halfpenny took his Six Nations points tally this season to 66 with three penalties and a conversion. France huffed and puffed in an attempt to spoil the party, and they had their moments, but penalties by half-backs Dimitri Yachvili (two) and Lionel Beauxis were not quite enough as Halfpenny's 76th-minute strike settled it.
A third Grand Slam in eight seasons matches the achievement of Wales' 1970s golden era teams and guaranteed folklore status for Gatland's thrillingly-talented generation. But the ambitious New Zealander, a red-hot favourite to be installed as British and Irish Lions coach next month for the 2013 Australia tour, will set bigger targets.
Wales have a three-Test trip to Australia ahead this summer, then face a November appointment with world champions New Zealand in Cardiff, and it is against heavyweight southern hemisphere opposition that Gatland knows his squad will ultimately be judged. They have taken Europe by storm, though, and the upward curve continues under Gatland, one which he hopes will take them all the way to World Cup 2015 in England as major contenders.
Skipper Sam Warburton returned for only his third start in this season's tournament after being sidelined by thigh and knee injuries, which meant no place for Justin Tipuric, who impressed on his first Test start against Italy last weekend. France, having seen their title hopes ruined by a failure to beat Ireland and England at home, showed five changes, while hooker William Servat and flanker Julien Bonnaire made their final appearances before international retirement.
Wales made the initial running, establishing a foothold deep inside France's half as they looked to unleash strong ball-carriers like Cuthbert and outstanding flanker Dan Lydiate. There was an impressive commitment and organisation about the French defence, though, and they dug themselves out of trouble to allow Yachvili an 11th-minute penalty chance that he accepted.
Rhys Priestland hit the post with an equalising penalty chance four minutes later - he was handed the opportunity while Halfpenny received treatment - but Wales stormed ahead midway through an entertaining half. The home side snuffed out a dangerous French attack, moved upfield at pace, and then after spinning possession wide, Cuthbert angled his way to the line after a 30-metre run when he beat three French defenders. It was a memorable score - Wales' 10th of the Six Nations by their much-vaunted back division - and Halfpenny's conversion put them 7-3 in front.
Halfpenny then added a penalty eight minutes before the break as Wales threatened to hit their straps, and France were forced into a change when injured fullback Clement Poitrenaud was replaced by Test debutant Jean-Marcel Buttin. Wales continued to look comfortably the more threatening team with ball in hand, yet they could not increase their advantage, having to settle for a 10-3 interval lead after an angled Halfpenny strike bounced back off the post.
Warburton's tournament ended at half-time when he was forced off due to a shoulder injury. Ryan Jones, Wales' 2008 Grand Slam skipper, replaced him, packing down at number eight as Toby Faletau took on openside duties.
Prop Gethin Jenkins, Wales captain against Italy, again led the team in Warburton's absence, yet it meant the revered World Cup leader had played just 160 minutes of a possible 400 in this season's Six Nations.
Wales appeared unsettled by Warburton's early exit, and a Beauxis penalty after 45 minutes cut the gap to four points, prompting Les Bleus' best attacking spell of the game when they stretched their opponents in all directions. But Wales somehow kept their line intact, and when Halfpenny booted a monster penalty from 51 metres - evoking memories of the one he missed by inches in the World Cup semi-final - it restored a seven-point advantage.
The final 10 minutes were inevitably fraught from a Welsh perspective, yet they kept their composure and held on with Yachvili and Halfpenny exchanging penalties before the mother of all rugby parties could commence.
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