Rising stars offer Wales reason for hope
February 27, 2008
"It is dangerous to dream too early and this is almost certainly at least a year too early but time is on their side and this time those dreams are definitely not based on self-delusion." John Taylor buys into Wales' Grand Slam dreams
'Bless the Welsh for such blissful self-delusion,' wrote an old press colleague of mine cruelly in 1997 as I and a fellow Welshman celebrated after Wales had run riot in the second half against Scotland, scoring three tries in six minutes as they turned a 16-10 deficit into a 34-19 victory.
I was reminded of it again on Saturday as the Welsh backs carved up the Italians because it proved particularly prescient. On that occasion it was the first match of the new Championship and expectation in the Principality leapt ahead of itself - Wales failed to win again and finished equal last!
Now the Welsh fans are more cautious - there have been too many disappointments in the last decade - but with three wins out of three you cannot stop them starting to dream. Are they deluding themselves again or are Wales really in with a chance?
I see very definite parallels with 2005. Then they began as outsiders after losing to England, Ireland and France the previous season so there was little or no expectation. It built gradually as the tournament progressed.
It all began with an unexpected and perhaps fortunate victory over England (remember Gavin Henson's long range penalty) and culminated with a win over Ireland.
But the most important factor was the way the team grew in assurance.
This time we can see the same thing happening. Beating England required their full cooperation - they would never lose the game from that position again - but Wales have improved almost with every minute from there.
They did a workmanlike job on Scotland and then dispatched Italy with panache. When you are the only team still in with a chance of the Grand Slam you are allowed to start to dream - unless you're a player, of course.
All the bouquets are being thrown to the backs after they scored five tries against Italy. They deserve them.
Shane Williams is a wonderful reminder that this is a game for every shape and size even in this professional era - providing, that is, you have exceptional skill, pace and vision. There is no better sight on the world rugby stage at the moment than Williams (all 5ft 7ins and 12st 12lbs of him) in full flight.
The other revelation has been Lee Byrne. He had won 10 caps before the Championship started but was not one of the stars. At the moment he is man of the tournament.
With four half-backs all contributing well and the Henson/Tom Shanklin axis restored and once again working really well in mid-field Wales will be confident they can score points against anybody if they can get enough ball.
But my cautious optimism is founded, not so much on the try-scoring potential of the backs, as the improvement in the forwards.
Much has been made of the opportunities Italy wasted in the first half - the inference being that Wales were lucky to be leading and the story might well have been different if those chances had been taken.
I take issue with that because the Welsh pack was outplaying the much vaunted Italian forwards - pre-match, the one area I was really concerned about.
It is a given that Wales have a half-decent back-row. Martyn Williams and the ever improving Ryan Jones would make most international squads and there is now the tantalising possibility that a fit again Alun Wyn Jones could even be considered at No.6 alongside them to add power that might be needed against Ireland and France.
But that thought is only tenable because of the unexpected contribution from the front five.
Ian Evans was my man of the match. OK the line-out technique needs some work - that is now a team skill - but there were three times in quick succession in that all important first half when he was charging through the middle in support, battering the Italian defence and making hard yards.
A revelation - Wales have not had a ball carrying second-row since? Well, Alun Wyn Jones but you know what I mean - he does it in much wider positions where he can use his pace and mobility hence the option of using him as a flanker.
With Ian Gough now a tough, seasoned hard man instead of an explosive (but risky) loose cannon Wales suddenly have an engine room to be reckoned with.
I was also impressed with Rhys Thomas (the prop not the hooker). Like Evans he was born in South Africa - but you have only to look at their names to know they are proper Welshmen - and I thought his career was over when he collapsed with a minor heart attack in October 2006 but it was caused by a split artery and he is now fine.
That is terrific news for Wales. He is only 25 and with Alun Wyn Jones (22), Evans (23), Jonathan Thomas (25) and Huw Bennett (24) all the same age or younger plus a 26 year old captain, this Welsh pack has huge potential - and that is the first time Wales have been able to say that for a very long time.
It is dangerous to dream too early and this is almost certainly at least a year too early but time is on their side and this time those dreams are definitely not based on self-delusion.