Old English assumptions under threat as Wales dare to believe

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In Brisbane just over a year ago the Welsh hooker Robin McBryde was asked a question that must have rolled down the valleys with the resonance of a crack male voice choir at the peak of its form. "Do you think," wondered England's former dreadnought second-rower Paul Ackford, "this is a World Cup that has come a year too late for England - and a year too early for Wales?"

"That's an interesting theory," said McBryde. His rugged countenance took on an expression that spoke of a deep reflection quite rare in the trench warfare of the front row and then he added: "There's no doubt some of the key England players are getting on a bit but they are still a formidable team. They have set the standard in world rugby and they're not going to be knocked over easily. However, I do think you could say things are happening in Welsh rugby."

The boot of Jonny Wilkinson consigned the first part of Ackford's enquiry to one of the more glorious annals of rugby history but the implication of the second lingers tantalisingly in Cardiff today.

Could it really be that the Welsh are coming again? Might they just score their first victory over the English beside the Taff in 12 years?

With Jonny the Boot out of action and the brilliant potential of his rival Charlie Hodgson facing a perhaps pivotal investigation in a re-made England team, there has never been a better opportunity. However, one exhilarating fact is clear. Doomsday analyses of the game in a land where it once flowered so beautifully are legitimately suspended.

The great fear addressed a few years ago by the former Wales captain Ieuan Evans has simply not come to pass.

"I do worry deeply about the future of the game here," said Evans. "I worry when I see the shortfall of natural talent ...and I worry when I hear that so many youngsters would prefer to spend their time in a video arcade or watching television; you wonder if the old spark has gone forever. Will we ever see another Gareth Edwards or Barry John? You worry that today's culture is incapable of throwing up genius and dedication like that."

It was a grey, cold, hopeless day in the valleys when Evans said that but today he will have a spring in his stride going to the Millennium Stadium.

So will Edwards and John and such ageing luminaries as Phil Bennett and JPR Williams. The sweet sense is that the Welsh can still play rugby, and not any old version of a game that once rippled with class and adventure and the surest sense of self-worth.

After one victory over the English in the late seventies, the great Edwards said: "It was a hard game tonight and the English pushed us all the way, but there was no way we were going to beaten. You would have had to bury us in the mud before that happened."

Not so long ago those words would have been the quaint sentiments of a vanished age. Not today, when the nation believes that the class of Gavin Henson, the explosive running of Shane Williams and the sure touch of the half-backs Dwayne Peel and Stephen Jones can feed extravagantly on the clever work of an outweighed but fast improving pack in which the drive and craft of Gethin Jenkins and Colin Charvis and the new force Michael Owen provide a genuine threat to the old English assumption of forward power and control.

When you add the talismanic gusto of the full-back Gareth Thomas, a throwback to the days when a Welsh rugby player believed that victory was more a birthright, it is not so hard to imagine a symphony for a long bruised spirit.

The healing began in Brisbane in that superb World Cup quarter-final when the Welsh, fresh from a stunning assault on the self-belief of the All Blacks, outscored England in tries and brought the wunderkind Wilkinson to the point of tactical bankruptcy. It took what the great former wing Gerald Davies considered to be the best move of Sir Clive Woodward's coaching career to halt the Welsh momentum. Said Davies: "If England had not brought on Mike Catt and in effect put him in charge of the team they couldn't have won that match. You felt the Welsh boys had realised all their hopes, you could feel in your bones. But then when Catt came on everything changed. However, this was still a great night for Welsh rugby. A young side today showed that it has a real future."

The highest hopes may have perished with defeat at Twickenham last year and fourth place in the Six Nations table but under the new coach Mike Ruddock there is a growing sense of a re-discovered destiny. Surely this is the day for the egocentric Henson, voted the world's best young player two years ago, to come of age. He, along with the giant lock Luke Charteris, is being pointed out as the clearest evidence that Welsh rugby has indeed gone back to its healthiest roots.

None of this is of course likely to leave England cowed today. Some of the old certainties have gone, but there is still a daunting sense of the deep strength of the World Cup champions and despite some severe cases of Wilkinson worship in the rugby establishment, there is also the suspicion here that Hodgson will confound both the Welsh dream and the belief of his critics that he can never be more than a lightweight replacement for the great hero.

For Hodgson the Millennium Stadium could well be the place where he states his class quite unequivocally. The good news for everyone who cares about rugby in these islands is that his test is likely to be utterly authentic. The Welsh believe that they are alive again and that the eyes of men like Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett will shine again as they did 30 years ago. If the wind is from the west, listen today for an uplifting sound. It will be that of the choir in the heart of a nation daring to be great once more. n