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Huw Richards
Huw Richards | Columnist Index
Huw Richards is qualified to play for either Wales or England and was only prevented from doing so by being slow, short-sighted, averse to pain and lacking in any compensating talent. Denied sporting success he became a journalist and, after contributing to the demise of several short-lived rugby magazines, was the FT's rugby writer between 1995 and 2009 and currently writes for the International Herald Tribune and the Sunday Herald.
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Now do it again
Huw Richards
March 21, 2012
Wales celebrate at the final whistle, Wales v France, Six Nations, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales, March 17, 2012
The challenge now for Wales is to repeat their 2012 success next year. © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Warren Gatland | Ryan Jones | Sam Warburton
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Teams: Wales

If one thing should be totally clear about the Six Nations championship by now it is that it is, as Americans would say, tough to repeat.

Its recent history is one of single-season hegemonies. There may have been four Grand Slams in the last five seasons, but nobody has succeeded in retaining the title since France in 2007 - and they quite possibly only by virtue of the final day scheduling that meant they knew exactly what they needed to do to overtake Ireland.

To find the last back to back Grand Slams you have to go a decade further, to before the Five Nations became Six, and France's consecutive slams in 1997 and 1998.

So we still await our first ten-match double-season slam. And no wonder. Among the considerable quantity of intelligent words spoken about the international game by Stuart Lancaster, none were truer than his comment after England's defeat by Wales that 'this is a game of narrow margins'.

Winning a double slam means staying on the right side of those margins for ten consecutive matches. As well as being good, you need the slices of luck that Wales had, in particular, against Ireland in the opening match.

Next year also brings what, more often than not, is the chief obstacle to Welsh Slam aspirations - a trip to Paris. Of the eight postwar slams only two, 1971 and 2005, have included an away win over France.

So another Slam, perhaps even another title, is something to be hoped for rather than expected in 2013. It would not, though, be too much to expect something more in the way of consistency than Wales have managed in the Six Nations era.

Thirteen seasons, three Grand Slams - and nothing higher than 4th in the other ten. It is one of the oddest sequences in any sport, and one whose ending is long overdue. If the current age is to make the ascent from gold-plated to Golden , it is the very least that should be expected.

The main reason for believing that this should be achievable is the evidence of depth in the current squad. In 2005 and 2008 Wales had a very strong first XV, but limited depth in reserve. While the religious among us still offer nightly prayers for the continued good health of Adam Jones, there are options in most other positions.

Told beforehand that Bradley Davies and Luke Charteris would take very little part in the tournament while Alun-Wyn Jones missed the Ireland and Scotland matches, most of us would have predicted another lower-half finish. Informed additionally that we would field three different captains and four open sides - counting Toby Faletau's second-half stint there on Saturday - we might have started feeling relieved that Scotland and Italy were due in Cardiff, meaning that at least it should be possible to avoid the wooden spoon.

 
"No decent rugby team is free of egos, but that is not the same as being afflicted by them. This squad, it seems, is unlikely to suffer the traumas that engulfed its predecessor of 2005."
 

That these obstacles were overcome so triumphantly speaks of depth, resilience and also terrific team spirit - epitomized by the contribution of two players. If ever a man's resistance to having his head turned has been tested, it has been Sam Warburton over the past few months. None of the praise has been unmerited, but it would have been very easy for a man still pretty new to international rugby to have been persuaded that he was the Welsh game's latest variation on King Arthur. His contribution to the Grand Slam was a very real one, including perhaps the single most significant moment of a fine tournament-long defensive effort, a try-saving tackle on the charging Manu Tuilagi at Twickenham.

Yet when the moment came to receive the championship trophy on Saturday, he was deeply conscious of the contributions of others and insisted that Ryan Jones and Gethin Jenkins, who had taken on the leadership in his absence, shared the moment.

Nor can any praise be too high for Ryan, who has lost both captaincy and starting place, appeared in four different positions, played brilliantly in the tricky early stages against Ireland, accepted demotion from leadership to bench and provided the same selfless, untiring excellence throughout.

No decent rugby team is free of egos, but that is not the same as being afflicted by them. This squad, it seems, is unlikely to suffer the traumas that engulfed its predecessor of 2005.

If consistency is one target for the immediate future, the other is getting on to the right side of narrow margins against southern as well as northern hemisphere opposition. The three-test trip to Australia in the summer is a terrific idea - promising the shifts in fortune, subplots and developing rivalries possible over a longer series - but only provided Wales play their part by winning at least once.

Australia have been consistently the most tantalizing of the southern giants, the one against whom Wales always reckon to have a chance. They don't beat you up, as South Africa can, or simply overwhelm you, as the All Blacks have done for most of the past half-century. Australia have instead simply outsmarted Wales on far too many occasions - a pattern that needs to start changing if Wales are to be serious world-class contenders rather than merely the current Second Division champions.

And then there are the regions. If one part of the WRU's genetic engineering programme, the one that turns out massive mobile backs, has been a roaring success the other one, stitching together disparate bits of the old club structures into misshapen regional franchises, has not.

Cardiff Blues may of course surprise us all by winning their Heineken quarter-final in Dublin, seeing off whoever emerges from the Saracens-Clermont tie on alien territory then flattening the survivors of the other half - Munster or Toulouse maybe - in a sensational Twickenham final. But you wouldn't, even given the extremely long odds likely to be offered for such an outcome, bet on it. And offered the choice between this and a guaranteed return to the Arms Park for their home matches, which way would most Blues fans vote?

Nine years in the case for the franchises is, at very best, not proven. The test for the WRU now is to use the success of the national team not as a reason for dismissing thoughtful critics of the regional structure like Pontypridd MP Owen Smith, but as providing a breathing space in which such views and analysis can be taken on board. Something has to be done. For all the excellence of South Wales's beaches, golden ages are very rarely built on sand.

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