Gatland has even grander designs
at the Millennium Stadium WALES ARE getting used to Grand Slams but after their third in eight seasons their focus is on ending the boom-and-bust cycle that has beset them since the end of the 1970s. Success has tended to be followed by prolonged failure but, as Wales coach Warren Gatland celebrated over the weekend, he was preparing for an assault on the Southern Hemisphere.
Gatland accepts that, for all the strides they have made in the 52 months he has been in charge – their success rate of 72 per cent in the Six Nations in that time compares with 80 per cent in the 1970s, 46 per cent in the 1980s and 31 per cent in the 1990s – Wales have to measure themselves by results against the major Southern Hemisphere teams, starting with this summer’s three-test tour to Australia.
Unlike 2005 and 2008 this year’s Grand Slam had a solid foundation. Wales made the semifinals of the World Cup, unfortunate to lose to France by a point after playing for the final hour with 14 men, and while in the past the heartache of such a narrow defeat would have lingered long and had a mentally draining effect, a young side that is mature beyond its years resolved before leaving New Zealand that the only way of salving the bitter disappointment was to win the Grand Slam.
Wales are a team that look forward, not back. Perhaps now, finally, the long shadow that was cast over future generations by the feats of the 1970s, even if they did not include a victory over the All Blacks or South Africa, can be replaced with light. They once again have players with reputations to make.
Wales won the Grand Slam for the 11th time but they have all come in clusters: three in four seasons from 1908, two at the beginning of the 1950s, three in the 1970s and three since 2005. Gatland has the chance to make history but is the overwhelming favourite to coach the Lions in Aus- tralia next year and would be required to take a year’s sabbatical from Wales, starting from the end of the season.
Gatland’s management team has been with him since the end of 2007 so there would be an element of continuity, but as a leader he has not been afraid to promote players who have not been regulars for their regions or who had just broken through: Sam Warburton, George North, Toby Faletau, Alex Cuthbert, Rhys Priestland, Scott Williams and Lloyd Williams were examples on Saturday of his ability to spot talent before others and the Welsh Rugby Union will fight hard to minimise the duration of a sabbatical.
Gatland has turned Wales into a hard-nosed, pragmatic side in his own image, something he did not have time to do in 2008. Wales have in the past been excitable, paying for lapses in concentration, but they have been resolute, calculated and iron-willed in this tournament. Their one try on Saturday came from a moment of opportunism after Thierry Dusautoir had been turned over; the certainty of chance. The ball was quickly moved to Alex Cuthbert who, 40 metres out, left two forwards floundering before being confronted with Clement Poitrenaud. The fullback braced himself for the impact of the wing who, in kit, is virtually 17st only to find, as he closed his eyes, that the wing had switched tracks.
Wales had earned the position thanks to Dan Lydiate, a silent assassin in the mould of Dai Morris, the number six in the early 1970s. Lydiate thwarted France’s first meaningful attack by tackling Florian Fritz and, after France had been penalised, won the lineout that Wales used to hoist a garryowen. Dusautoir had just received a pass when he was taken low by Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones stole the ball and Lydiate played scrum-half for Priestland to free Cuthbert.
It was Wales’s 10th try in the tournament and they conceded three. Leigh Halfpenny, who used his late long-range penalty miss in the semi-final against France as motivation rather than a source of grief, kept them a score ahead of France with his boot.
Wales will tonight be the guests at a Welsh government reception to which supporters have been invited but Gatland’s thoughts are already on Australia. Wales will need at some point to offer more variety in midfield – James Hook stayed on the bench on Saturday as there was never a point when Wales needed to force the game.
That will not be lost on Gatland but Wales are a difficult team to beat, as they showed when coming from behind to win in Ireland and England. There is a hint of New Zealand about them in the patient way they wait for the right moment and it is against the best in the south that North & Co will be judged.
Guardian Service WALES: Halfpenny; Cuthbert, Davies, Roberts, North; Priestland, Phillips; Jenkins, Rees, A Jones, AW Jones, Evans, Lydiate, Warburton, Faletau. Replacements: R Jones for Warburton (half-time), L Williams for Phillips, Owens for Rees, Charteris for AW Jones (all 63 mins). FRANCE: Poitrenaud; Fofana, Rougerie, Fritz, Palisson; Beauxis, Yachvili; Poux, Servat, Attoub, Pape, Maestri, Dusautoir (capt), Bonnaire, Harinordoquy. Replacements: Buttin for Poitrenaun (36 mins), Debaty for Poux, Szarzewski for Servat (both 44 mins), Trinh-duc for Palisson (53 mins), Picamoles for Bonnaire (59 mins), Pierre for Pape (63 mins), Para for Beauxis (72 mins). Referee: C Joubert (South Africa).
Wales winger Alex Cuthbert escapes the tackle from France backrower Julien Bonnaire to score the only try during their Six Nations Championship match at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, on Saturday.