Narrowest of margins
Huw Richards
February 28, 2012
Wales' Jamie Roberts celebrates with match winner Scott Williams, England v Wales, Six Nations, Twickenham, England, February 25, 2012
Jamie Roberts embraces the match-winner Scott Williams © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Warren Gatland | Rhys Priestland
Tournaments/Tours: Six Nations
Teams: Wales

The currency may be a little devalued - just ask the Irish who felt their string of triumphs over nearer neighbours was a consolation prize until they saw off the French as well to claim a Grand Slam in 2009 - but Triple Crowns are among those things of which you really can't have too many.

They are rarely easy or routine. Even world-class juggernauts like the England in 2003 or some of the Welsh teams of the 1970s will encounter serious resistance somewhere along the line. That's in the nature of clashes with your neighbours. Even if there is a gulf in class they'll rarely go quietly or willingly.

Not least of the virtues of the Wales team who completed a 20th Triple Crown on Saturday at Twickenham is an ability to extract results from adversity. They were fortunate with key decisions in Dublin and could hardly have complained if the Twickenham clash had finished in a draw, but seem to have acquired the happy knack of winning the close ones. Stuart Lancaster will never speak a truer word than his post-match comment that 'matches at this level are decided by the narrowest of margins'. What distinguishes the good teams from the rest is that the majority of those margins wind up on their side.

Those three wins have taken a degree of resilience, notably the ability to play without some key players. This relies on the selfless efforts of players like Ryan Jones, a serious contender as Wales' player of the tournament so far in spite of not being a first choice. Each match so far has required him to adopt a different role - blind side, then lock and captain, then replacement lock - and to make a serious contribution in each guise.

It is not hard to hear echoes of the last Triple Crown but two, won by Bleddyn Bowen's team in 1988. They go beyond a strong sense of youthful vibrancy to an authentic case of history repeating itself.

That team too had to a great extent found itself at a World Cup in New Zealand where they had reached the quarter-final before playing Australia for third place. During the 1988 championship they saw off Ireland in a desperately close run thing, played some brilliant rugby at home to Scotland and defeated England in a grippingly brilliant contest at Twickenham. The order of matches may be reversed in 2012, but the echoes are the same.

Forced to put together a combined 1988-2012 team, I would opt for a majority of the earlier team's back division - notably half-backs Robert Jones and Jonathan Davies, along with rather more of the 2012 pack, in particular the back row.

Let us hope, though, that the resemblances stop at this point. The 1988 team are the only Welsh XV ever to blow a Grand Slam at home - before knocking them for this, it is worth remembering that you have to do very well to get into a position where blowing a Grand Slam is possible - going down narrowly to France in the final match.

They then went on a disastrous summer tour, which was followed by the kneejerk sacking of the coaching team that had won the third place and Triple Crown, creating the 20-year Calvary that followed.

Some things are of course different. The exodus to rugby league, with its accompanying denial of 'defectors' to the Wales team, that took place from 1989 onwards is unlikely to be repeated. But we may well see much of the current team heading off to France. They won't, unlike their predecessors, be banned from playing for Wales but Warren Gatland has already pointed to the extent to which having players abroad will complicate his life and so hamper his team.

Sam Warburton's immediate talking down of comments that Wales were sure to hammer England was evidence of a grounded, focused realism

Nor is sacking the coach the easy option it was when there were no financial consequences to consider. Having given Gatland and his team extended contracts, the WRU would rather not have to pay them up early as compensation.

But perhaps such longer-term thoughts might be regarded as an example of getting ahead of oneself, a failing to which this team seems to be happily immune. Sam Warburton's immediate talking down of comments that Wales were sure to hammer England was evidence of a grounded, focused realism. To shout the odds is to court retaliation and embarrassment. Warburton knew better.

The same realism will be needed before the Italy match. Certainly Wales will start as favourites and should win with something to spare. But to see it as a done deal is probably the likeliest way of blowing it.

Gatland has been caught once by Italy, barely escaping with a win in 2009 after fielding an under-strength pack. So don't expect him to change too much except for the necessary upgrading of Scott Williams to replace Jamie Roberts. Instead the key subplot underneath the all-overriding pursuit of title and Grand Slam is likely to be therapy for Rhys Priestland.

How he reacts to his unhappy afternoon against England may define his international career. Other teams will have seen how England hurried and pressurised him and will seek to do the same. That he reacted so well in the final 15 minutes against England suggested a player who is able to cope, and come back wiser and stronger - Italy, and after them the French, will be keen to see if the alternative storyline, of a bright international opening brought to ground once opponents understood his game, might still prevail.

A personal guess is that France are not quite the team they were in 1988, while this Wales team has a sheer physical power and presence that may make it a tougher proposition in a crisis. We could truly be on the verge of another great age for Welsh rugby, but fans would be well advised to make the most of the current ascendancy while it lasts, just in case it proves as short-lived as the triumphs of 1988.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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