The first steps to atonement

Andrew Longmore watches a Welsh show of character carry them through a crucial day
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The Independent Online

Old, new, borrowed and all black. This was a patchwork Welsh side who looked tactically and technically threadbare for much of an impoverished, nervy, error-strewn match. Thank goodness, then, for the Scots, who only compounded their mediocrity by turning on the style in the dying minutes. By then, the match was out of reach.

In truth, Wales won comfortably enough, but, so inept were the Scots, that was not an eloquent testimony to their prowess. In Shane Williams, Wales had the outstanding figure on the field, a winger short of stature and big of heart who streaked home for match-breaking tries in either half and, in between, tackled a pound or two above his 12 stone.

Not far behind was Matt Cardey, one of the survivors of "Kiwigate", and Stephen Jones, the latest heir to the most precious jersey in Welsh sport and a visionary beyond his years.

Yet, after the week the Welsh have had, no one could begrudge them their moment of triumph. Graham Henry, as resolutely pragmatic as ever, now has time to draw breath. He knew better than anyone this was an afternoon to beendured, a one-off match of unexpected significance and uncertain outcome which coaches, whatever their outer tranquillity, loathe with a passion. These are matches which shape careers.

In the manner of Twickenham, the Welsh scrum held firm, but the line-outs were a muddle and much of the back play incoherent. The crowd were strangely subdued, aware of the dark forces another defeat could unleash. But nothing mattered other than the maths on the electronic scoreboard.

Given the eligibility crisis that had engulfed the Welsh, it was a surprise a flourishing of birth certificates did not precede the traditional and lusty rendering of the Welshanthem. The week had ricocheted from the farcical to the surreal, not least when Cardey protested the authenticity of his grandmother's birthplace with a detailed description of the ceremonial scattering of her ashes in Nantyglo cemetery. There is a tree planted in her name, he added, the sort of proof of origin which the International Rugby Board might take into consideration when they consider the whole vexed question at their next meeting in a fortnight or so.

But you can imagine some IRB sleuths heading for the churchyard in Nantyglo complete with Sherlock Holmes deerstalkers and magnifying glasses. There were those willing to testify that the two regimental goats paraded with the Royal Welsh were actually committee members in disguise. Yet only Rupert Moon, Llanelli via Walsall, sang Cwm Rhondda with more gusto than Cardey.

For Henry, whose policy of international trawling has fallen foul of the vast majority of the Welsh public and a powerful faction of the Welsh blazer brigade, a generally mild-mannered inter-Celtic scrap had turned into a scene from Apocalypse Now. His reputation, already dented by a lacklustre showing in the World Cup and a dismal capitulation to England earlier this month, was on the line with a rapidity unexpected even by the notoriously fickle standards of the valleys.

Henry has brought a cool, calculating, approach with him from Auckland, laced a post of myopic significance with a dash of objectivity. The one justification for such heresy was winning and the New Zealander did enough of that for a time to warrant his downbeat assessment of all things Welsh. Shorn of their traditional passion, Wales were exposed by England as a team of desperate mediocrity, that had finally come to believe in their own poor publicity.

What Henry needed above all yesterday was a rousing endorsement of his policy by a team constructed on a wing and prayer. In time to come, they might post this team on the noticeboard of Welsh rugby history: no Jenkins (injured), no Quinnells (injured and dropped), no Howley (dropped).

A pivotal partnership of Rupert Moon, winning his 19th cap five years after his 18th, and Jones, making his first full start, smacked of the rugby equivalent of blind man's buff. With his shirt collar tucked down and his head encased in a red guard, Moon looked like a cross between a footballer of the Fifties and one of Mike Tyson's sparring partners. Moon earned his qualification not by unearthing a fairy grandmother but by working, resting and playing in Wales. Significant portions of the game bypassed him, but that neither lessened his spirit ordiminished the decibels and, at the end, when the victory was won, it was Moon who gathered his red satellites around him for one final tribute.

Cardey's first move in his adopted Welsh jersey was a slip as an obtuse bounce eluded his grasp. But his long flowing locks were soon involved in the more positive Welsh moments and a dashing, jinking, run down the touchline early in the second half - ended by a tackle which should have brought a yellow card for Gregor Townsend - showed that Granny Cardey's grandson has a turn of foot and no little spirit. Whether he is quite the genuine article as an international full-back will be a debate for another day.

At the final whistle, the dominant emotion for players as well as crowd was relief. Henry, who had watched impassively from the stands, allowed himself a twitch of a smile. The knives were resheathed, ready for another day.

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