Rugby Union / Five Nations' Countdown: Wales seek to lay ghost of Seventies: The Slam is back on the Welsh agenda tomorrow. Steve Bale reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN WALES Grand Slams used to be the subject of expectation rather than hope, a bit like in England in more recent years in fact. Indeed, for the Welsh the expectation was a more or less annual event, whereas when Ieuan Evans's would-be champions step out at Twickenham tomorrow it will be in pursuit of the first Welsh Slam in 16 long and largely barren years.

It is an onerous legacy for the present generation - in Scott Quinnell's case, in direct line of descent from his father Derek, No 8 in the 1978 side - that when the Wales of the Seventies did not do the Slam they still tended to claim the Triple Crown as a decent consolation. The unprecedented triple Triple Crown of 1976-78 was thought to be impossibly exceptional until it became quadruple in 1979.

But not even the great Welsh teams of John Dawes, Mervyn Davies and Phil Bennett did consecutive Grand Slams. That makes the English double of 1991 and '92 still more remarkable - even if the achievement lost some of its gloss last year when a one-point defeat by Wales, and with it farewell to a prospective triple Slam, was enough to undermine motivation and morale. The supposedly mighty fell with a thump.

So powerful was the presumption of victory that England could not cope with the need to pick themselves up after a defeat. Such hubris was never something the Wales of the Seventies suffered. Year by year the issue tended to lie between Wales and France, so that in between the Welsh Grand Slams of 1976 and 1978 there was one for the French in 1977.

What is more, when Wales and France came together in the climactic 1978 match both were seeking the Slam, the first time there had been such a conclusion to the Five Nations' Championship. It has happened three times subsequently: Scotland v France in 1984, Scotland v England in 1990 and England v France in 1991. Given that, even having lost to Ireland, England will take the title with a victory by 16 points, tomorrow's game is as close to another winner-takes-all as you could get.

Given the euphoria of the time and the enormous, if grudging, admiration there then was for Welsh rugby, it is fairly extraordinary to relate that there has been no Welsh Grand Slam since Bennett's time. One Triple Crown in 1988, when Wales were denied the Slam by a 10-9 home defeat by France, has been a meagre ration of success since the Seventies' final triple coronation of 1979.

The '78 Slam had little of the flamboyance of its '76 predecessor, when the 102 points amassed by Mervyn Davies's team created a Five Nations record that was eventually surpassed by England's 118 two years ago. Bennett's team succeeded with much the same prosaic determination and indomitability that latter-day England like to think they have.

By the time Wales met France at Cardiff Arms Park 16 years ago this very day, the senior players knew their era was ending. 'The thing I'll always remember was that the Welsh team were all physically and mentally exhausted from way before the game,' said Bennett, who is almost as sprightly at 45 as he was at 29. 'The majority had been to New Zealand with the Lions the summer before (when Bennett was captain); that was a rainy, muddy slog from which we still hadn't really recovered.'

It still ended in a Grand Slam but it was not a vintage Welsh season. They had to work harder than usual to beat England 9-6 in steady drizzle at Twickenham and Scotland 22-14 in Cardiff. Although the 20-16 win in Ireland clinched yet another Triple Crown, the twinkle-toed fly-half does not recall it with much affection.

'The hype involved in the triple Triple Crown was unbelievable and it turned out to be a very torrid match,' he said. 'What it did was knock us back psychologically. After that game we were very, very tired. It took a lot more out of us going into the next match than we realised.

'When we met the following Sunday to prepare for the Grand Slam decider the session was such a shambles that John Dawes (the Wales coach) knocked it on the head early. When it came to the match, it frightened me whether we'd be able to summon enough energy because we were tired out going on the field, never mind at the end of the game.'

He need not have worried. France built an early 7-0 lead but Wales, inspired by Bennett's two tries, pulled back and then clear to beat the French to the Slam by 16-7. It turned out to be Bennett's and the nonpareil scrum-half Gareth Edwards's international farewell.

'Character is a word that is easily thrown about but that was what pulled us through,' Bennett said. 'We were on our knees. We won with great heart, a gutsy performance rather than anything flashy. When that final whistle went I knew I'd played my last game for Wales. Gareth and I caught each other's eye in the dressing-room afterwards and both of us sensed straight away that it was all over.'

You could say that Welsh rugby, despite the subsequent '79 Triple Crown, has not been the same since. Bennett and Edwards are members of the all-time Welsh pantheon and even the greatest who have followed - Jonathan Davies, say, or Robert Norster - never quite claimed their own place because the players around them were inferior to those around their illustrious predecessors.

The Welsh champions of '78 used only 16 players - Gareth Evans replaced the injured Gerald Davies in the French match - compared with the 19 Wales will have fielded this season. By way of more immediate comparison, England were completely unchanged through their 1991 Grand Slam and used 16 in 1992.

But the biggest difference between then and now is that this Welsh side began the championship unheralded and given about as much chance of a Grand Slam as old England would have been in 1978. Where there were 11 Lions from 1977 in Bennett's team, Ieuan Evans is the only Lion of '93 in his own team tomorrow. The Wales of the Seventies used to thrive on expectation; the Wales of 1994 have thrived on hope alone.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments