James Lawton: Irresistible red starburst blazes trail back to glory days

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The Independent Online

There has been much talk about "the new Welsh rugby dream" but it should be dismissed as an insult perpetrated by those who cannot trust what they see.

It is patronising, as though the world has thrown up some weird, wild possibility that a team wearing red shirts and once likened to dragons can again touch the stars with a game that might just blaze for as long as one whole season.

Everyone ought to believe it now. This - surely we saw here in one of the most amazingly fecund halves of rugby ever played - is not a new Welsh dream. It is an old reality, one that flows from a natural instinct to play the game in a certain way.

It is the picking up of old habits, old beliefs. It is rugby that was supposed to be dead in Wales but has been brought back to life in the thrilling play of men like Stephen Jones and Gavin Henson, Rhys Williams and Shane Williams. Here yesterday it was a red starburst, an explosion of irresistible, running rugby.

Now the Irish, who had their own hopes of reviving some old Celtic glory before the French came to Lansdowne Road on Saturday, represent the last obstacle to a first Welsh Grand Slam since 1978. Those mystic Seventies of Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Phil Bennett, JPR Williams, "Merve the Swerve" Davies and his namesake Gerald, are no longer some distant fable for a disbelieving modern world. Whatever the future of this new Wales, however far they go along the road of success, something fine and blood-stirring can be said to have been achieved already.

They have made those old days once again believable to a new generation.

They have explained the sweep of native genius when the ball is moved down the line, when individual players inject themselves into the collective action with nerve and imagination. The result is not rugby of numbers or power or slide-rule calculation. It is rugby of the blood and the spirit, rugby that several times in this famous stadium brought the hush of something close to disbelief.

Yesterday's slaughter of Scotland was in some big ways different to the astonishing defeat of France in Paris. For a start, the margin was 46-22 at the final whistle rather than a kick for survival by Stephen Jones, but then long before the Welsh rested on their swords, a glorious point of comparison had been made.

It was that in one vital area the laying waste of a desperate Scottish team shared something hugely significant with that taming of the vibrant French in the Stade de France.

Both victories flowed from a breathtaking willingness to trust in the talent of outstanding rugby players, men of speed and vision who carved huge holes in a Scotland side which had talked themselves into the belief that victory over Italy might be the foundation of some kind of recovery, however modest. That was a sad fantasy, exposed as early as the fourth minute by a stupendous try created and then, after some beautifully rhythmic passing, completed by the flanker Ryan Jones.

The Welsh, who swept to that extraordinary 43-3 lead before easing up, bringing on replacements and preparing for the final step against the Irish, had made an opening statement which seemed impossible to follow on any sustained basis. But such tries came in clusters, surging runs, outrageous angles, breathtaking handling.

If it was not Shane Williams' speed, it was the new certainty of Stephen Jones, the swagger of Henson, who had silver streaks running down the back of his head.

After this latest explosion of Welsh virtuosity, Henson's eccentricities and ego will surely be considered the lightest of trials. Thierry Lacroix, the former French fly-half who knows about the nuances of running, passing rugby, said: "I like this team very much, I like the way they think and I liked the way they play. They will be champions and they deserve to be. They must have done a lot of hard work."

There will be many theories about the genesis of such soaring rugby. Some swear that the revolution began with the failed but unforgettable adventures against New Zealand and England in the last World Cup. Others say it was the new coach, Mike Ruddock, who inspired and defined the requirements of renascent Wales in the Stade de France two weeks ago.

But then as the Welsh poured down upon the Scots, as the ball was switched so mesmerisingly around the field, it all seemed quite academic. The point was that Wales were playing rugby of the ages, and, most thrillingly, of their own.