Gat­land has even grander designs

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Rugby Six Nations - PAUL REES

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).

Pho­to­graph: Mike Hewitt/getty Images

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.

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