Simply the best
Huw Richards at the Millennium Stadium
March 17, 2012
Adam Jones, Ryan Jones and Gethin Jenkins celebrate the success © Getty Images
While Welsh Grand Slams are wont to arrive in clusters, each has its own individual flavour. This was not the euphoria of 2005 or the disbelief of 2008, but something rather different.
There was genuine delight at the end, and an impromptu choir still giving a fine rendition of Calon Lan in one of the Millennium Stadium bars a good 90 minutes after Rhys Priestland's kick to touch provided the final punctuation, but as Warren Gatland said in a fairly subdued press conference, the mood was "one of relief as much as anything".
The atmosphere in Cardiff pre-match (and pre-rain) had been cheerful. The sight of thousands of French fans, many marked out by berets, scarves and blue shirts, in the street was a reminder that they not so long had hoped that this might be their day of triumph.
But the pre-match build up, while noisy, was a little lower key than on previous Slam days. Tom Jones was there, along with the composer of Delilah, but he was merely saluted over the public address rather than coming on to the pitch to perform. That was left to a male voice choir. If Katherine Jenkins was there, it was in a strictly private capacity.
The planned minute's silence in honour of Mervyn Davies - rightly bracketed with All Black Jock Hobbs - was somewhat perfunctory and lasted only a little over 30 seconds. The best reminders of Merv came in the Western Mail running a front cover featuring his boots and the second half appearance of Ryan Jones, a fine back rower in a headband. A pity he didn't have time to grow a Zapata moustache.
Sam Warburton, as impressive off the field as on it, offered a graceful tribute to perhaps his greatest predecessor as Wales captain at the post-match press conference. But this match wasn't really about Merv, still less about revenge for defeat in the World Cup semi-final. As Warburton said "the only motivation we had was winning a Grand Slam. That was all that mattered".
That was also where the pressure and weight of expectation came from. As Eddie Butler said post-match, looking back to 2005 and 2008 "they were unexpected. This was not". It is instead a logical follow-up to that vibrant World Cup performance.
With that in mind the one date that nobody wanted to recall was 1988. A bright young Wales team fresh from a World Cup semi-final going for a Grand Slam at home to France - and falling short, the only Welsh team ever to lose a Slam on home territory.
This French team were not good enough to make that happen, but more than sufficiently competent to keep the crowd guessing and worrying until the final minutes.
That Wales carried the job through, and with comparatively limited fuss, epitomized the virtues they have shown throughout. It has never been easy for them. Warburton has missed two and a half of the five matches and they went to Dublin for what, in retrospect, was the crucial match of the entire campaign with a patchwork pack.
There is no doubt that they had their stroke of luck there, but they ultimately won the Triple Crown, Championship and Grand Slam, and deserved them, because they were simply the best all-round team. It was an excellence personified by players like the selfless Ryan Jones - a rugby answer to a basketball sixth man - and the magnificent Dan Lydiate. If Jones today offered echoes of Merv, Lydiate is a true descendant of his team-mate Dai Morris, the player who rarely makes mistakes and is hardly noticed by many spectators, but bulks large for coaches and opponents. As Shaun Edwards said: "If it was up to me, he'd be Man of the Match every time".
Alex Cuthbert celebrates the Grand Slam © Getty Images
It is of course ridiculously early to ask, as the Guardian did in a historically illiterate front-page headline that had no relation to the much more intelligent and sophisticated piece to be found within 'Is this the greatest ever Wales team ?'.
They have yet even to join that debate. Three Grand Slams in eight years may at one level match the achievements of the 1970s, but stand against a context of Wales not having finished in the top half of any other Six Nations campaign. None of the teams that Mervyn Davies played in finished below second. And that's before you consider the teams of the 1900s and 1950s, both of whom also beat the All Blacks. Not yet a golden age, perhaps more of a gold-plated one.
There is certainly time to add substance, to create a true golden age. But there are also challenges aplenty to come. This fine team sits atop a crumbling domestic structure of unloved regional franchises. Gatland will presumably be on a pre-Lions sabbatical when Wales defend their titles next year. And it remains to be seen whether a squad who are scattered across the club systems of France, England and Wales can function as coherently as the still essentially home-based team that triumphed this year.
But those, the regions apart, are next year's challenges. At the same time we must enjoy the moment and recognise a group of players who, as Rob Howley said "deserve everything they have achieved". Howley added that he thought they'd get better over the next four years. We can but hope….
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