Wales have rightly claimed their Grand Slam. Good teams do stuff like that; express their superiority; by winning things. Following on from a World Cup where they were indisputably the darlings of the watching globe, it is surely particularly appropriate that we can actually treasure – all of us – a time when that most thrilling combination of liberated running and invincible belief have overcome more prosaic cultures. Because that’s what’s happened.
Wales have carried that flame for flair and expression thereof more convincingly and more closely to their hearts than anyone else. Because the essence of what they are doing is notably purer than all the remaining Six Nations sides. Because the Welsh nation wills it. Because the coaches – Gatland, Howley and Edwards – believe they have the personnel to make it work in a cynical age.
So what we get is a fascinating mixture of olde-worlde philosophical generosity (does that sound faintly laughable?) and modern drive. Gatland is clearly a gritty but inspiring sort; Howley a past master of many of the graces perpetrated by ‘girls’ and Edwards a challenger, an enforcer, a furious, steely bundle of aggressive stepforwardnowism. What is Cardiff Central here is the ability to engender real trust and belief. Not the flip-chart version; the mild-mannered or over-coiffured version. The real deal. This the Welsh leadership have managed – along with virtually everything else – modestly, with supreme confidence and not a little style.
The combination – that word again – of contrasting personalities all apparently gathering, picking and going in the same direction is one of the more discussed and imagined notions in successful team sport; it is however, rarely observed in the flesh. It’s here in Wales. In a land uniquely (probably) close to and well informed upon its national sport, people proudly identify with Warburton’s previously described Brotherhood of Redness. They might do that as a matter of course. But things take flight, passions and glorious expectations rise when there is an understanding of some value-adding extra dimension in play. It’s here in Wales. This icing-on-the-cake goodness thing. What’s not to love about your own team being both mighty successful and magnificently entertaining?
This, of course, is mere context. Welsh Windbaggery. And what pleasure it gives me to wave this flag for sporting poetry and – yes maybe – pomp, pretty secure in the knowledge that the Six Nations Table concurs with my view of this emblematically Welsh triumph; goals (or equivalents) paying that rent. Lest this ode deteriorate further into hagiography however, I would like to say a few things about what these victories were grounded upon; actually.
Start at the front. There has been an argument that Wales were in some sense not big or brutal enough to compete at the Very Top Level Up Front for some years. This argument may have had some merit to it in days when there was evidentially a shortage of cover for Adam Jones or Gethin Jenkins (say.) (This could and was also said about the second row, mind you.) In other words there was an informed view that Wales did not have a sufficiently strong or deep pool of front five assets. Fair cop. It may even be an issue now against the Tri-Nations heavies -possibly. But Wales front three against France today contained at least 2 world class performers for me – and the third, Matthew Rees – is no mug.
The second row has likewise more than held its own in this tournament but Alun Wynne Jones and Ian Evans lack the obvious class of the fellows immediately to (and up and against) their rear(s.) This hardly makes them weak links, mind. They are merely decent internationals – Wynne Jones being almost worth his place for the brio with which he sings “Mae hen wlad “etc etc.
That back row for Wales is, in the current jargon, immense. The full complement of Lydiate/Warburton/Faletau at 6/7/8 compares favourably with anything anywhere on current form. Lydiate was justifiably Man-of-the-Match today for his fierce commitment and industry, his ability to deny the opposition. Warburton is rightly already famed for his sensational athleticism and power and Faletau has the uncoachable knack of always and often crucially beating that first tackle. They have, as a unit, taken up the challenge and indeed the mantle of whirlwind All Black back rowers who have achieved almost unplayable heights in terms of their dynamism and ability to unzip the breakdown. The opposition now fears an open game against Wales for many reasons – one of them being the dangers posed when the likes of Faletau and Warburton flash from phase to phase.
But let’s face it, the fabulous truth is things get exciting when the ball goes wide. Jonathon Davies has had a superb Six Nations; Jamie Roberts a good one. But the new beasts, the cherubic outhouses on either flank have probably garnered most coverage, most glory and most points. (Haven’t checked – but you know what I mean.) George North has arrived, often with a mass of Englishmen/Italians etc attached or being swatted contemptuously aside – that’s if they had the fortune (good or otherwise) to actually lay fingers upon him. He looked like some choirboy-alien in red; some babe born immediately before the match, at 19 stones, then hurriedly unbuilt or transported to nothingness for the following week. So that the fluently superlative but somehow other-wordly charging through normally – hah! – proportioned defences could begin again. He’s er… beyond stardom already.
And then this bloke called Cuthbert turns up. Weighing in at a similarly absurd tonnage, with similar gifts for elephant-trampling or – apparently – tap dancing. Massive.
Again let me dig out one of my pseudo-anecdotal wotnots here; about this linkage between Welsh back play and culture. The fans, the people of Wales really know they have something extraordinary going for them. They know this both intuitively – in their Red Souls – and in the detail. A young woman (Sales Rep, as it ‘appens) waxed authoritatively to me recently about the weight and power advantage Wales had in the backs for their trip to Twickenham. (Meaning obviously the likes of North against say Strettle). I was fascinated by her appreciation and her relish for this new turbo-injected Dragonstuff. Glee was certainly present at the gateway to this new, physically enhanced dominion. But the nature of our conversation remained almost spiritual; does that sound laughable?
She understood, she knew, it was implicit in what she said that the game in Wales has not departed from its upliftingly sunlit dingle. Moved on, yes, but not departed. Gatland has led a revolution for mad, old, daft ideas. Both icily as well fervently – he has chafed as well as smiled no doubt. He has prepared his Brotherhood quite possibly better than any rugby team ever before. They have a remarkable team ethic because they believe in him, in something. And as that something is clearly and obviously to do with the expression of gifts as well as the exercise of power and planning, I am unable to refrain again from using this word poetry. Meaning a kind of inherently beautiful expression. In this case, on a pitch.