Wales endeavour to honour Merv with Grand Slam
Only France stand in the way of the Red Dragons heralding the beginning of a new golden age
Mervyn Davies was such a giant of a player, his figure could easily be picked out in the enormous shadow cast across Welsh rugby by the Seventies. But, far from rejoice in the nostalgia, it was always his wish that, one day, the game in his country could escape the darkness.
"I honestly long for Wales to enter another golden age so they can put arthritic old buggers like me out to grass," said Davies, he of the moustache and the head bandage.
Well, the No 8 they called Merv the Swerve was on the brink of seeing that hope realised. If it is ever appropriate to comment that the timing of the premature death of a 65-year-old and the staging of a mere rugby game could be fitting then it is surely the passing of Davies in the week of Wales' reunion with destiny.
Should the Red Dragons prevail at the Millennium Stadium then they will emulate those Seventies superstars – minus some of the sidesteps and all of the sideburns – in winning three Grand Slams in eight seasons. Of course, Davies was the captain of probably the best of those teams – the boys of '76 – and but for a life-threatening and career-ending condition he would have captained the 1978 champions as well.
Inevitably, Wales will play in his honour, a claim that may bemuse many considering none of the side were born when he was playing. Yet in the land of their fathers' recollections, the legend truly has lived on to the extent that all of this team, from 19-year-old George North to 31-year-old Gethin Jenkins, will be well-versed in the folklore.
"We told the team this morning, although we were aware he had been fighting cancer for a while," said Rob Howley, the skills coach, at the Millennium Stadium, as the team were put through their final paces. "We all know that Mervyn was a colossus. In 36 games for Wales he lost just nine times – an incredible fact we've been talking about. We're all saddened by the loss. It's given us that extra motivation tomorrow. It will be emotional."
Won't it just. Cardiff will be no place for the cynical or, indeed, the bashful as the Seventies revival strains for its highest note. Certainly the ambition will be so much greater than in ensuring they don't lose by too many and thus risk conceding the Championship to England. No, this isn't about a 38-point advantage, but a 34-year disadvantage.
Comparisons flow ever more freely in the valleys between then and now, but at last these are not odious. Davies's team had to beat France in the final match to claim the glory, as Warren Gatland's team will today. The visitors turned up with anything but entertainment on their minds – as they will today. And if Wales follow the lead of Davies and Co they, too, will emerge sometime around 4.30pm covered in mud, blood and glory.
Davies played on for 70 minutes despite, in his own words, "a well-aimed stud puncturing a calf muscle in the 10th minute and my left leg swelling at an alarming rate". The principal memory of that afternoon was JPR Williams's tackle-cum-shoulder barge on Jean-François Gourdon which effectively won the match. But the sight of Davies, by now in agony, being carried off on the creaking shoulders of fans also burns so bright. It's easy to envisage the young Sam Warburton in a similar pose today.
But then, maybe it should be Jenkins, Adam Jones or even Ryan Jones taking centre stage in the immortal image. Victory will mean this trio will join Gareth Edwards, JPR and Gerald Davies in the exclusive Grand Slam hat-trick club.
Yes, it will be all too simple today for Wales to start the toasting before the bread is done. Philippe Saint-André, the French coach, has picked an uncompromising pack, a combative backline which together with his insistence on the roof being open have made his intentions all so rather obvious. The forecast is for rain and conflict.
Howley knows exactly what to expect and yet again, it's hard not to connect Davies with a backrow battle to make the old dogs drool. It's Warburton, Toby Faletau and Dan Lydiate versus Imanol Harinordoquy, Thierry Dusautoir and Julien Bonnaire. Hold on to those inflatable daffodils.
"This will be a game between the six, sevens, eights," promised Howley. "Those six players have all the ingredients between them of great backrow play – ball-carrying, decision-making, physicality, breakdown play, tackling, the aerial skills, the lineout skills. That part of the game will be a joy to watch. Not, perhaps the other 24 players."
Howley is being over-simplistic. The rolling maul will be an area Wales must control, particularly with William Servat, for so long the best hooker in Europe, recalled for his final international game. Expect Lionel Beauxis to go for the corners, but also expect him to come under pressure like he did against England. With Dimitri Yachvili also recalled it means that this is France's fourth half-back pairing in the tournament. In contrast, Wales have started with the same backs in all four games thus far. Even with the formidable midfield defensive partnership of Florian Fritz and Aurélien Rougerie, it is hard to see the synchronised bulldozers of the Welsh backline not gaining at least some traction.
Yet will it be enough as Les Bleus threaten to roll on before they roll over? There will be nervy moments as the minds drift back to last October's agonising one-point World Cup semi-final defeat. Wales have seen yellow cards with a numbskulled frequency in this championship and Warburton's infamous red in Auckland will only highlight the necessity for discipline. They can hardly say they haven't been warned.
Yet Howley is convinced Wales will come through. "We back ourselves in dogged situations," he said. "I'm sure we won't have the ball for 80 minutes and there will be times when we have to dig deep. But this team finds a way to win. There is a self-belief and a conviction in this side which Wales haven't been blessed with for years."
Indeed, not since Merv was doing his swerve. There will not be a dry eye in the house if the great man, and, on another level, the Seventies as a whole, receive the send-off they deserve.
Results so far France 30-12 Italy, Scotland 6-13 England, Ireland 21-23 Wales; Italy 15-19 England, Wales 27-13 Scotland; Ireland 42-10 Italy, England 12-19 Wales, Scotland 17-23 France; France 17-17 Ireland; Wales 24-3 Italy, Ireland 32-14 Scotland, France 22-24 England.
Remaining fixtures: Today Italy v Scotland, Wales v France, England v Ireland.
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