The Last Word: Once-shambolic Wales take professional route to glory

Gatland's men have shown – on and off the pitch – how real discipline and dedication can be rewarded

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Warren Gatland couldn't resist it. As sly digs go, this would have made those Seventies wrestlers wince. The Welsh nation, declared the jubilant coach, should be very proud of their players. Not just on the pitch, but off it. Fine young ambassadors, these boys.

England, of course, cannot be proud of their players. Gatland, just like everyone else, knew this would apply both on the pitch and off it. They were ambassadors, but only of the type England could quite do without. Rather like those entitled buffoons in the last days of the Raj.

Granted, there were honourable exceptions. But, as a group, England's World Cup stank fromstart to finish. From their unprofes-sional night-time antics to their unprofessional match-time antics, ill-discipline reigned everywhere England went. One is inextricably linked to the other, and if you don't understand that then you've never followed England in the football World Cup. And so starts the recrimination. Oh joy.

Wales have experienced theirown negative publicity during the Gatland era. Drunk back-rowers driving golf buggies along the motor-way hard shoulder, coaches punching other coaches, players fighting with nightclub bouncers... and all that before we even mention Gavin Henson. But through it all, Gatland remained adamant that the professionalism he introduced would eventually prevail, and would do so because of the players themselves.

In Masters Warburton, Lydiate, Faletau, North, Halfpenny, Roberts, Davies, Priestland and others, Gatland discovered a new breed of rugby player coming through, untainted by the old clubhouse nonsense of the amateur era. In the wake of England's negative headlines Sam Warburton, the 22-year-old captain, revealed the squad were off the booze. Not completely and not because of a stern Gatland edict. But because they realised the possibilities could lead to permanent euphoria, could establish them as legends before they had even peaked. This is what beckons them. So long, Barry, Phil, Gareth and JPR. There is no longer need to take consolation in your rich nostalgia.

Without reverting to the deeply naff, it is impossible to predict what it would mean to Wales if – dare we say it – they won this World Cup. Yes, the generalisation of rugby union in England being a rich man's sport is both lazy and erroneous. Go into a pub in Gloucestershire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and so many other shires and inform them they are all public-school posh boys. But it cannot be argued that rugby union in Wales is the game of the people. Indeed, it is so much more than that.

The Welsh nationalists will vehemently disagree, but more so than the language, rugby gives the country its identity. Only one in five in Wales speaks Welsh. So many more speak rugby. They will talk it all week, about the parties they will hold if the dream comes true. Sport dangles this feelgood and certain prime ministers – and economists – will testify to the influence such a collective outburst of positive patriotic emotion can reap. Already the great sense of Welshness will be as pronounced as it ever has been as they celebrate being the last home nation standing for the first time since the original World Cup. Goodness knows what will happen if they make the final. At the very least, Max Boyce should eke out another decade of employment.

The English should not, and won't, turn off. The RFU should most definitely stay tuned. There is a lesson to be learned from the manner in which the Dragonhood has been reinventedin the past four years. Remember how shambolically they exited against Fiji in France? Wales's rebellious class of '07 made this England outfit seem well-oiled (and no, not in the sense they are being described as now).

In the wreckage of that disgrace, the Welsh Rugby Union, to theircredit, acted swiftly and decisively, and in Gatland found a man unfazed by the challenge. Whatever else he is to achieve in the forthcoming fortnight, the smirking All Blackcan congratulate himself on aquite staggering turnaround. It only proves the importance of calling in the professionals.

BOA fly in the face of respected opinion

The British Olympic Association make one so proud to be British. No Johnny Foreigner is going to tell us that drug cheats have the right to wear our national flag.

So what if an unbiased and highly respected body called the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the International Olympic Committee rule which stopped any athlete who has been banned for six monthsor more from competing inthe Olympics.

So what if a group of intelligent judges looked at the case of the US sprinter LaShawn Merritt and decided he was being punished twice by the IOC.

So what if even the World Anti-Doping Agency has called on the BOA to repeal their bylaw which excludes any athlete who has ever tested positive for drugs.

So what if the fight against drugs is to be successful every sport and every competition must be unified in following a universal drugs code.

So what if David Millar, the cyclist who was banned for two years seven years ago, is now doing more than perhaps any athlete – either "clean" or not – to help educate the youngsters coming into sport. So what if he remains banned, when he could be in the team room showing his junior colleagues just what is possible without the needle.

So what if we live in a society which is forgiving, which believes in second chances as long as the miscreants havelearnt their lesson and arenot a danger to others. So whatif you could commit a murder and still be allowed to represent Britain in the Olympics. Sowhat if this bylaw is archaicand, in effect, provides no deterrent whatsoever.

We're British and shall notbe moved. No matter if weare wrong.