Forget the glamour, the old Welsh heroes were harder

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The Independent Online

It is one of the fallacies, endlessly repeated, of this Six Nations, which is nearing its end, that the favourites to win the competition were Ireland. They were not. The favourites were England and France with Ireland in third position, followed by Wales. I advised the readers of this column that the best bet were France at 6-4.

But when it came to the point, I did not take my own advice. It seemed to be, well, on the boring side. Instead I chose to invest (as the bookies like to put it) £100 on Wales at 9-1. If I had bet on the Grand Slam rather than on the championship, I would of course have received more favourable odds. Even so, I am quite happy about what I did. There is still room for things to go wrong; but somehow I do not think they will.

The Welsh, as I have written before, are not a puritan nation. They are romantic in the highest degree. Their typical hero is a young man, scarcely more than a boy, who lives to astonish a generation, exercising his skills with an apparent lack of effort or preparation, and who goes on to die young. In former times he could be a warrior, a poet or a musician. In the 20th century we had to make do with rugby players instead.

The last authentic representative was perhaps Barry John, who did not die young - happily he is still with us - but did the next best thing by retiring early, at the ridiculously youthful age of 26. By 1978, when Wales last won the Grand Slam, John had long been succeeded by Phil Bennett. Though Bennett was a more typically Welsh outside-half than John had ever been (Stephen Jones is nearer to John than he is to Bennett), there is perhaps a disposition to endow the late 1970s with a glamour which they did not possess at the time.

For instance, though Shane Williams is not Gerald Davies he is a fair substitute. Kevin Morgan and Gareth Thomas make, I would guess, even more incursions than J P R Williams ever did, because that is what a modern full-back is expected to do. Tom Shanklin and Gavin Henson are livelier centres than Ray Gravell and Steve Fenwick, who were certainly solid and even stolid. Altogether, I am unable to recollect a match of the late 1970s when an entire Welsh team, forwards as well as backs, flung the ball about with quite the accurate abandon which Wales managed on Sunday.

The technique has been referred to as "offloading''. I prefer to call it quick and accurate passing. For offloading should surely be reserved for the situation when an attacking player is tackled but is not brought to the ground and manages to slip the ball to a supporting attacker. Former league players are often adept at this, as Gary Connolly was when he played centre for Harlequins some seasons ago.

But if the players of the 1970s were less slick in their passing, they were harder, not in the sense that they were fitter or stronger - for how could they have been? - but because they were tougher mentally. They would not have allowed Scotland to win a second half 19-8. To add only eight points after the interval, five of them from a Rhys Williams try, was, frankly, a bit of a cheat.

I have read in what we old journalists have been brought up to call "another newspaper" that, to deprive Wales of the championship, both France and Ireland have to win their remaining matches, respectively against Italy and Wales, by certain points margins, in Ireland's case 13. Arithmetically, this is not correct. If Ireland beat Wales by one point - say, a Roman O'Gara penalty in extra time - France would win the competition if they had managed earlier in the day to secure at least a 53-point margin against Italy in Rome. And on the evidence of their performance in Dublin, who is to say that this would be impossible? In this case France would be top, Wales second and Ireland third.

I mention this because, though optimistic by nature, I am cautious by disposition. One way of helping it not to happen is to close the roof of the Millennium Stadium well before Saturday, so that the boys can play with a nice dry ball on a nice dry ground. In a previous season there was a row because, for whatever reason, the authorities had not taken this course. Who makes the decision is unclear, which is, I fear, only too typical of both the game of rugby and my native land. What it seems to amount to is that he who has access to the button wields the power. I urge whoever it is to shut up shop by midweek at the latest.

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