The Grand incentive

Door to Slam triumph swings open for Wales as Ireland's dream dies in Dublin and French rediscover their fluency
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The Independent Online

Wales' remarkable second-half recovery to beat France was accorded its full value yesterday when Ireland failed in their attempt to imitate them and surrendered their chance of a first Grand Slam since 1948 in a 26-19 defeat by the French at Lansdowne Road. Wales, after three victories, continue their pursuit of a Slam when they play Scotland at Murrayfield today.

Wales' remarkable second-half recovery to beat France was accorded its full value yesterday when Ireland failed in their attempt to imitate them and surrendered their chance of a first Grand Slam since 1948 in a 26-19 defeat by the French at Lansdowne Road. Wales, after three victories, continue their pursuit of a Slam when they play Scotland at Murrayfield today.

France, the defending champions, had perhaps learnt their lesson and this time, after creating a platform for victory with first-half tries from Christophe Dominici and the excellent debutant Benoît Baby to lead 18-9 at the break, they weathered an Irish fightback. Only once did they lapse when Brian O'Driscoll ruthlessly exposed errors in defence to streak away for a try under the posts with eight minutes to go. Ronan O'Gara's conversion left Ireland only two points behind, but Dominici snatched his second try in the final moments to end Ireland's hopes and open the door for Wales to claim a Slam.

Eddie O'Sullivan, Ireland's disappointed coach, said: "When Brian scored under the posts the game was there [for us]. But this French team have won two Grand Slams in three years, they are a formidable outfit and they deserved to win today. We could have won, but the margins are very tight at this level. The try at the end [Dominici's second] was a real killer."

Wales deserve their shot at the Grand Slam after turning around their match in Paris and it should have come as no surprise; Wales have been turning everything around in recent years as they have dragged themselves back from the depths they had reached since their most recent Grand Slam in 1978.

As Gethin Jenkins, the Wales prop, put it yesterday: "Most of the games in my international career, we had lost, so it's nice to turn around and win three on the trot. You always believe that things are going to turn around, and when they do, you want to keep that momentum going. We know what it is like to have been on the receiving end of a couple of hidings, and it is a much better feeling when you are on the other side."

Wales' next opponents, Scotland, have become the British whipping boys and it would be a tremendous shock if they were to upset Welsh progress today at Murrayfield. The Scots will have to do what the fluent French did to Ireland and prevent Wales from feeding gifted backs. Shane Williams and Gavin Henson are two players who are capabale of exploiting good ball to maximum advantage and dancing the Dragons to the Grand Slam.

That would complete a turnaround as remarkable as the one England have achieved since winning the World Cup 17 months ago. In their case it has been performed in reverse and their 39-7 victory over Italy yesterday was their first of the Six Nations this season. Mark Cueto scored a hat-trick and Iain Balshaw capped his return to the international arena with a try, but it was another unconvincing England performance. Italy were poor and finished the match without a specialist hooker, meaning scrums for almost the last 25 minutes were uncontested.

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