Mission accomplished for resurgent Wales
March 19, 2008
"This is a work in progress. Unlike the class of 2005 this team will not be allowed to rest on their laurels. They will fulfil their promise or they will be out." John Taylor writes
There has never been a day like it at the Millennium Stadium. The momentum Wales had built through the season was unstoppable and whoever makes the decisions about celebrations in the Welsh Rugby Union obviously had no doubts they would beat France.
The final whistle sounded, the crowd went into a rapturous rendition of Bread of Heaven - 'Feed me 'til I want no more' has never been sung with more passion - and within five minutes the fire boxes were spewing flames and booming out their message.
A superstitious voice behind me muttered something about counting chickens and I must confess I couldn't help but wonder, just for a moment, what would have happened if Wales had lost - I guess they'd have packed away the fireworks for another day and we would never have known - but there weren't many doubting Thomases, even in Wales.
Sometimes the razzamatazz at rugby matches is over the top but for once the hype was no match for the genuine euphoria. Even the French, caught up in this spontaneous outpouring of national pride, realised this was something extraordinary and politely joined in the celebrations.
What made this a very special Grand Slam was the way it was achieved. For the first 40 minutes in their first match, against England, Wales looked a hapless bunch of no hopers. The humiliation of that 38-34 defeat by Fiji in the World Cup looked set to continue.
Good old England! I still find it hard to explain why they imploded so spectacularly in that second-half but once Wales finally got some possession they showed England what you're supposed to do when you have the ball in hand and almost literally stole the game.
England were shattered, the whole of Wales was grateful but nobody outside the squad saw it as the seminal moment it proved to be.
That was the first chance Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards had had to really assess their new charges and they went to work with an almost religious zeal.
The forwards, who had looked totally out of their depth against England, were a revelation against Scotland and Italy. Both those countries were deemed to have powerful packs but the Welsh forwards out-muscled them in every department.
The doubts remained - they were the weakest teams in the Championship and Wales had had home advantage. Ireland would surely find them out at Croke Park.
But Wales were by now a very different team from the one that had started the tournament. They controlled the game, almost from start to finish, and despite butchering numerous chances still won with something to spare.
One or two commentators have suggested that France were poor last Saturday. They were obviously not at the same match.
This was Marc Lievremont's first team and they hurled everything at Wales for the first 65 minutes but, by now, it was Fortress Cardiff and every attack was repelled. France dominated possession in the early stages but, on my clock, it was 31 minutes before there was even a half break through the Welsh lines.
Edwards had set out his stall right from the beginning. The successful Welsh teams of old had always been hailed as great attacking sides but he had done his homework and proved to his players that defence played just as big a part.
In this final match they were definitely on a mission. The defence was so aggressive it became a form of attack - never more so than when Wales were down to 14 men - and eventually France buckled and made the errors that allowed Wales to counter and score the only two tries of the game.
You have to give the credit to the coaches. Gatland dismissal as Ireland's coach eight years ago obviously still rankled more than any of us suspected and he was determined to show them they had made a bad mistake.
He never put a foot wrong. Getting Edwards - a man Kenny Logan described to me last week as the best coach he had ever worked under by a mile - and Robert Howley on board was a masterstroke.
Next he snuffed out any problems relating to player power. There would be no challenging who was in charge.
He then made them realise there is no comfort zone at this level. Alix Popham was probably still celebrating that victory over England when he discovered he was dropped for ill-discipline.
Mark Jones might well have thought his defensive slips had gone unnoticed in the euphoria and Dwayne Peel soon discovered the fact that you have 60 caps and are generally considered the best scrum-half in Britain meant nothing to his new bosses.
Suddenly, the whole squad looked leaner and fitter - Adam Jones went from scrummaging struggler to Terminator in the space of six weeks - and, as confidence grew they were able to start to play to their potential.
This is a work in progress. Unlike the class of 2005 this team will not be allowed to rest on their laurels. They will fulfil their promise or they will be out.