James Lawton: A nation united by a Kiwi, an Englishman and a Welshman

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The Independent Online

Sometimes you have to go beyond the doublespeak of big-time sport and see the body language.

Here it was most eloquently expressed in the first moments of the Welsh realisation that not only had they won their second Grand Slam in four years but that in the end it had come in a Denman canter.

Cardiff, and no doubt the rest of the principality, was already filled with hymns and arias and chests pushed out like Dylan Thomas's Auntie Hannah when captain Ryan Jones finally had the trophy in his hands. His instinctive reaction was to hand it on to the brilliant coaching team of Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley – the Kiwi, the Englishman and the Welshman who had harnessed so unerringly the nascent power of another generation of natural-born rugby players.

Gatland, who like most men of authentic action and decision, is not so comfortable in the limelight, waved away the gesture. But the point had already been made with a force that Jones was later reluctant to develop when he was asked if he would care to draw any distinction between this triumph and the one that came in 2005.

No, and perhaps understandably, he really would not, choosing instead to speak of the impact of success on any group of players. However, a fundamental truth had been expressed in that climactic moment out on the field amid the fireworks and the joy.

In 2005 the winning coach, Mike Ruddock, was swept out of office in the most acrid of circumstances, a victim, it was all too apparent, of back-ground politics, committee floundering and old-fashioned player power. Here the power of the players has been concentrated on the field with stunning organisation, concentrated force and competitive logic.

If there is any threat to the Welsh future promised by a superb coaching triumvirate it is surely from without, and not least from Twickenham, where the idiocy of allowing the departure of Edwards and his razor-sharp defensive innovations has only been underlined by an England campaign so bare of nerve and initiative and genuine leadership.

Even in England's face-saving defeat of Ireland, the comparison with the Welsh effort remained devastating. At Twickenham, Danny Cipriani was allowed a starting place at only the last call, and with predictably sensational effect. At the Millennium Stadium, Gavin Henson, whose dubious celebrity status was sprouting long before Cipriani was allowed into his first nightclub, was gloriously completing a whole season of rehabilitation under the strength and the nous of the Gatland command.

Against France, the Welsh tactics were so brutally effective, so complete in their guarantee of victory, that the allusion to Denman's triumph is surely not so idle. Denman applied pressure to the potentially brilliant Kauto Star so relentlessly he might have been equipped with a gauge as well as a set of awesome natural strengths. It was the same with the Welsh annihilation of France.

The attacking flair of such as Vincent Clerc and Yannick Jauzion was invited into the parlour – and then broken and mashed. Their coach, Marc Lièvremont, spoke of Welsh patience – and passion, and agreed that they were the worthiest of champions.

Despite spending 10 minutes in the sin bin for a lazily thrown arm against the flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo, Henson was rightly deemed man of the match. He did not match the pyrotechnics of the record-breaking Shane Williams and the magnificently resurrected Martyn Williams when they ran in the tries that broke the French. Nor did he rival the volcanic effect of Mark Jones when he ran nearly the length of the field and was just stopped for a try which would have been mentioned in the same as breath as his Gareth Edwards' Barbarians epic.

But there were times when Henson became Wales in the force of his defence. Maybe he does use tanning lotion, perhaps he rivals Charlotte for time in front of the dressing-room mirror, but this was Narcissus turned into granite.

He was also still another Welsh player put on his toes, alerted to the fact that past deeds mean nothing in the calculations of a coaching team who know that it is only in attention to detail that a team develops to its maximum potential.

Mark Jones was another who had learned the hardest lesson, a brusque removal from the team after being held partly responsible for an England try in that unprepossessing first half of Wales' opening of their campaign. On Saturday it was plain enough that such frailties had been hammered away with each leg of the Slam.

Already we knew Gatland saw James Hook, the frisky thoroughbred, and Stephen Jones, the calm stayer, as interchangeable forces, two sides of a most valuable coin, and here such thinking worked with a dream-like seamlessness.

Such squad versatility will no doubt be invaluable in the sharply heightened challenge awaiting Wales in South Africa, where the world champions will no doubt be eager to add a little lustre to their status after their prosaic performance in the final against England last autumn.

There is excited chatter in Cardiff about the portents for the future, with names of prodigies like the teenage fly-half Dan Biggar and his happily named Wales Under-20 team-mate Jonathan Davies looming large in the projections for a new empire. However, it is not hubris encouraged by the hard-eyed coaching crew. Says Gatland, "You're never finished in this job, there is always something more to be done."

Yet you can say that certain stages have been completed – and some ground rules established. This surely was the true meaning of a great Welsh victory – and a fine campaign.

Barry John thought so. He was supremely confident before the kick-off, saying, "rugby is like any other sport, you need certain qualities to be a winning side. It is no good just having talented players. We've had a fine bunch for some time now, but you can only be really confident when you know you also have the other bits in place. We didn't in the World Cup but we do now – and it's plain for everyone to see. This team can handle the pressure. This team is well led."

That was just one endorsement by a great Welsh rugby player, arguably the most gifted to have pulled on a red shirt. JPR, JJ, Gareth, Gerald, Phil ... they all shared the same song-sheet on the day when a new Wales faced their most important test.

Can they grow beyond being the best in Europe? So much depends on the appetite of Gatland and Edwards to make further investment in a rugby nation they have come so quickly to own. Wales might have hoped for a less equivocal answer when Edwards was asked about his possible reaction to an overture from England, as might Gatland, who reminded us with some heavy sarcasm that the best his tough and brilliant assistant had been offered by his homeland until now was the second-string Saxons.

But then so much has changed. Most importantly, a team of talented players have shown what can be achieved when they are taken in hand properly.

James Lawton's prediction for the top of the final table in the Independent's Six Nations preview on 2 February was: 1 Wales; 2 England; 3 France

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