Ruddock's realisation of our dream is just the start

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The Independent Online

Forgive my countryfolk if they come across as rather bullish these next few weeks, a touch arrogant even. Because what they witnessed yesterday - and, indeed, what they been witnessing for the past seven glorious weeks - was the realisation of all the hopes and dreams of the past 27 years. And nobody knows what to do when all the hopes and dreams are realised quite like the Welsh.

Forgive my countryfolk if they come across as rather bullish these next few weeks, a touch arrogant even. Because what they witnessed yesterday - and, indeed, what they been witnessing for the past seven glorious weeks - was the realisation of all the hopes and dreams of the past 27 years. And nobody knows what to do when all the hopes and dreams are realised quite like the Welsh.

They were fully deserved celebrations, too, that turned Cardiff into one massive street party last night. And let no one tell you any different. Wales were the side in this championship who played the thrilling rugby, who made the heart miss a whole series of beats, who thrilled the soul with an expansive game that is quite simply a pleasure to watch. It is a monument to their Corinthian spirit that even in the cauldron of yesterday's doe-or-dier they still had the nerve to stick to their principles of running the ball whenever they could, of flinging it wide, of constantly searching for the gaps.

True, there are a number of areas where they have been anything but perfect. The line-out remains an area of concern, but only a slight one, and not nearly as much as some have made it out to be. And in a way even this supposed weakness must please Mike Ruddock, because he knows there is so much to work on. Sometimes people forget just how young this Welsh team are, and how much improvement we can expect.

We saw glimpses of it in the World Cup, in last year's Six Nations, but the team's transformation into a cohesive unit under Ruddock has been staggering to behold. He has turned the forwards into a unit who can now be expected to hold their own, and when these Welsh backs are given their fair share of the ball then there is no stopping them.

Dwayne Peel was huge yesterday, just as he has been all tournament. He sets the high tempo that Wales's high-risk strategy is based on. He has a wonderful all-round game and must be a certainty for Sir Clive Woodward's Lions starting XV. I would also venture that Stephen Jones must also now be a favourite to start, as should a number of other Welshmen.

Gethin Jenkins was as spectacular in the loose as we all prayed he would be, and he plays a pretty mean game in the scrum, too. That first-half try will long live in the memory, as will many moments from this Six Nations: Gavin Henson's kick against England, Shane Williams's runs against Italy, Martyn Williams's opportunistic try against France, Ryan Jones's peach against Scotland. It will be some DVD to feast over when the highlights inevitably go on sale some time in the next 48 hours.

I have taken most joy from the performance of the forwards and the new-found professionalism that promises to raise the standard of Welsh rugby to new heights. We seem to have finally realised what the professional game is all about, as seen in our improvements in fitness, in the front five and in the Welsh defence that once again was so impressive yesterday. In Michael Owen and Gavin Henson we have uncovered two real gems, and with those such as Brent Cockbain, Tom Shanklin and many others, we can now make real inroads into the world game.

For Ireland, it is difficult to see where they go from here. They looked a tired side yesterday, being outplayed in almost every area, and it is a pity a few of their players left the pitch probably never to be seen in the international game again. They have some good youngsters coming through, however, and when you have Brian O'Driscoll in your party you should never lose hope.

Wales never did, although in the midst of the dark years it was impossible for even this optimistic nation to see where the next big victory would come from, never mind Grand Slam. But in two years we have gone from wooden-spoonists to grand-slammists, a change in fortune that made many Welshmen pinch themselves last night. I was certainly one of those. After the triumph against England that launched this fantastic run, I wrote: "Confidence can take you to places you never dreamt of". To be honest, however, even I wasn't envisaging what was about to unfold.

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