Young Dragons roar
March 21, 2012
Alex Cuthbert scored a terrific try against France © Getty Images
You always want a Grand Slam to be won in the grand manner. But it seldom happens and last Saturday it was a wonderfully mature, pragmatic performance that gave Wales their third clean sweep in eight years - a truly magnificent achievement especially when you recall the disarray after the 2007 World Cup.
Wales won without ever quite hitting their straps and that in some ways made it an even more remarkable achievement. They always had something more to give and found a way to get across the line even when things were not going that well. They were by far the strongest team in every final quarter and we have not seen that in Welsh rugby since the 70s.
Last Saturday, watching the game live at the stadium, I felt Wales had made hard work of it. I wanted them to cut loose and was frustrated by the number of times they kicked out of hand - 35 - which was more than France who were always going to play a kicking game.
Watching again it was obviously a fall-back option because the French defensive plan was totally geared to stopping Wales's runners on the gain line. Wales could have just kept battering but showed enough nous to change tack when they realised how committed France were to snuffing out the big midfield runners.
Rhys Priestland did not always kick very well (throughout the Championship if one wants to be hyper-critical) but once Alex Cuthbert had scored that superb try his chips in behind the French backs kept them on the back foot and allowed Wales to control territory most of the time.
Cuthbert's score was the defining moment of the whole Six Nations. A thunderous tackle on France's captain, Thierry Dusautoir, IRB World Player of the Year, from man of the match, Dan Lydiate, a great turnover from Alun-Wyn Jones and a wonderful sidestepping finish from Wales's latest young giant - perfect if you are Welsh.
These are heady days for Welsh rugby and one doesn't want to tempt fate but one of the most exciting aspects of this Grand Slam is that you feel the side is still developing and can reach significantly higher levels. They are playing a southern hemisphere style of rugby and, unlike many Welsh teams of the past will have no fear when they face New Zealand or South Africa.
Injuries can always wreck the best laid plans but looking at the squad at the moment there are only a handful of players who might be past it by the next World Cup. It is a huge bonus for Wales to have a world-class front row so the biggest worry is the fitness and desire of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones - all over 30 - but winning the biggest prize of all is a huge incentive - we shall see.
Other than that only Ryan Jones and Mike Phillips are in the twilight zone and they are both coming under huge pressure from very talented youngsters in any case.
England can also look back on their Six Nations with huge pride. As regular readers will know I thought there was a ridiculous hysteria when Stuart Lancaster was being hailed as the new Messiah before he had really proved anything but he has done a marvellous job in creating a totally new culture within the England squad.
He was helped by two fortuitous wins at the start but everybody needs a little luck. His greatest achievement so far has been to successfully refocus the mindset of some talented players who were out of control.
The tries against France will have done everybody a power of good and the scrummaging performance against Ireland was Herculean if a terrible indictment of the state of Irish forward play.
Not that English fans should be getting carried away. Much of the Irish game was played at a funereal pace and England need to get some tempo into their game in the loose if they are to start to have realistic ambitions of winning when they host the World Cup in 2015.
For the other four nations it was pretty dire. I expected Philippe St Andre to galvanise the French but perhaps it was too much to ask so soon. Some of his selections were puzzling, particularly at half-back and centre where Wesley Fofana, having looked to be the find of the tournament, was inexplicably relegated to the wing against Wales. He also has a big problem finding an adequate replacement for Lionel Nallet who may be 35 but still looked their best second-row by far.
Ireland, without Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, were reduced to a shambles. They have some talented backs but must be really worried about their tight-five forwards - ironically, they chose today to announce a they are looking for a 'high performance scrum coach' - say no more!
I am not sure where Scotland go from here. I felt they were making progress until the final game and Andy Robinson appears to have the respect of the players but his record is now the worst ever.
You have to sympathise with his problems - a tiny player pool and an inadequate response to the crisis from the Scottish Rugby Union - but he desperately needs a grand plan to rekindle his appetite and give hope to a once proud rugby nation.
Finally, Italy - still the nearly men but that win against Scotland will be a further boost. They know they have to produce some backs to go with their talented forwards instead of relying on antipodean rejects - easy diagnosis, not so easy to achieve!
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh