The big story of the Six Nations so far has clearly been the performance of Wales. It is also the big question. How on earth has the rabble who were run off the park by Fiji in the World Cup just a few short months ago suddenly turned into Six Nations table toppers? And is this a false position as they still have to play Ireland or France, or could they seriously win a second Grand Slam in four years?
It is precisely because it would be their second Grand Slam in four years that I remain slightly dubious as to whether this Welsh side are the real deal. In 2005, Wales scraped past England due to a late Gavin Henson penalty, produced a coruscating second half display in Paris playing gung-ho rugby, and suddenly there was no stopping them. Their tails were up, momentum was with them and they took full advantage. ‘Wales are back’, everybody cried, expressing with unanimity that this was excellent news all round for the game of rugby.
But then, nothing. Mike Ruddock was overthrown as coach and Wales spent two years chucking the ball around with gay abandon, often going backwards as they had no platform to build on. The result was 2 wins and 1 draw in the next two years. The removal of Mike Ruddock was troubling as he was a fine coach and by all accounts a ruddy good bloke (sorry). When players can pick and choose the coach then you are in trouble and from a distance it certainly looked as though this talented group of players had got somewhat above themselves. The suspicion was that they felt they had made it, the hard work stopped and the fun started.
In 2008, Wales narrowly won their first game and history (or at least the first bit) could be about to repeat itself. They were outplayed for 50 minutes by England and took merry advantage when their opponents imploded. Since then they have look sharp, witty, inventive and ruthless. However this was against Italy and Scotland, both of whom admitted to having played pretty poorly. We will know far more in a couple of weeks’ time when Wales will have travelled to Croke Park and hosted the schizophrenic French. And we will know a lot more in a year’s time as it will be clear whether Wales have simply found good form or whether they are the genuine article.
But what has made the difference thus far? I am not convinced that Gatland and Edwards can really have worked their magic in such a short period. Their record at Wasps speaks for itself and it is unlikely they will let the team slump as they did after their last successful championship, but they are not miracle-workers. Their influence may be that the motivation to impress a new, hard-nosed, unknown coaching team has put a rocket up the players. This is a talented generation of Welsh players who have let themselves down in the recent past. We are now seeing how they can perform and it is an impressive sight.
The worry is that the second bit of history could repeat itself as well. The key job of the new coaching team will be to harness the undoubted talent on a long-term basis. The raw material is there but has not utilised its potential. Surely they can’t make the same mistakes again but it does give the right for the outsider to reserve judgement at least for a while. The circumspect reaction of the Welsh public to their 3 wins thus far suggests that they have their doubts.
So what do people think? Wales for the Grand Slam? Are this current crop of Welsh players thoroughbreds or show ponies? Is this finally the resurgence of Welsh rugby or just the umpteenth false dawn in the past 25 years?
by Stuart Peel