Merv the Swerve would have said this was deserved
The Millennium Stadium
Sunday 18 March 2012
Mervyn, you feel, would have approved. That wonderful Wales No 8 of the 1970s, Mervyn Davies, who died on Thursday, knew that Grand Slams seldom come easy and the victory yesterday was as hard-fought as any. But now Wales believe they have a side which will, in time, come to bear comparison with those of the famed "decade of the Dragon", of which Davies was so integral a part.
This team of the professional era have matched the achievement of 34 years ago, in that Wales have won three Slams in an eight-season period, in 2005, 2008 and yesterday. Their predecessors won in 1971, 1976 and 1978, every time against France; that 1976 side, who won by six points, was led by Davies in his last international appearance, coming as it did 22 days before he suffered the brain haemorrhage which ended his playing career.
There were haunting moments here, after the minute's silence in which 74,000 paid tribute to Davies and the former New Zealand captain and administrator Jock Hobbs, who also died of cancer last week. The kick-off went straight to Toby Faletau, the successor in the No 8 shirt of Davies; another back-row forward, Ryan Jones, who also wears a head band – like Davies did – could not have given more when he replaced the Wales captain, Sam Warburton, at half-time.
Davies, moreover, came from Swansea and another Swansea boy, Leigh Halfpenny, has been crucial in the winning of this slam. His penalty goal won Wales's first game of the 2012 Six Nations Championship, against Ireland in Dublin, and his steadiness in front of goal has sustained Wales in moments of uncertainty. Here four goals from five, one of them from all of 52 metres, gave Wales the cushion they needed.
This is their 11th slam. Only England, with a vastly superior playing population, have more with 12, of which only one has come in the professional era. The point about this Wales side is how much better they should become. The average age of the side is a little over 24 and there is no reason to suppose that the old hands – Gethin Jenkins and Ryan and Adam Jones, who played in the successes of 2005 and 2008 – should not still be going when the 2015 World Cup comes along.
Perhaps that is the essential difference between the modern Wales and the sides of the 1970s. Jenkins and the two Jones boys are forwards; the trio who played in the three slams of the earlier era, Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams, were backs and they are the ones, known just by their Christian names – like Merv the Swerve – who are so fondly remembered.
Consider, too, the difference between Gerald Davies – was that a tear the great man wiped from his eye as he watched his exultant successors from the WRU committee box? – and George North and Alex Cuthbert. The size of the modern wing (both men are over 6ft 4in and 16st-plus) makes the 5ft 8 and a half and 11st 8lb Davies seem even more diminutive. But what he and his peers lacked in stature they made up for with skill.
The current Wales back division has been described by another former captain turned commentator, Gwyn Jones, as "brutal" – by which he means their size and confrontational style. Rhys Priestland, the fly-half, is a genuine footballer who has not been able to find his best form in this championship but given the voracious nature of modern defences – and France yesterday were no exception – opportunities in open play are few and far between.
It is a remarkable statistic that, of the 11 Welsh Slams, seven have been decided against France. Yesterday's Western Mail compared yesterday's starting XV with that of 1978 and concluded that nine of the old timers held the whip hand over the present generation.
"It would be interesting to see the team of the 1970s playing South Africa and New Zealand regularly, which we aspire to do," Warren Gatland, the head coach, said. "We're not at that level yet but our aim is to beat the southern-hemisphere sides on a consistent basis. We have a young enough side to be able to do that over the next few years."
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