The night belongs to Gavin, the glory to Ruddock

Jonathan Davies in Cardiff
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Forgive us Welsh if we gloat awhile, but we have waited a mighty long time for this moment - and what a mightily deserved moment it was, too.

Forgive us Welsh if we gloat awhile, but we have waited a mighty long time for this moment - and what a mightily deserved moment it was, too.

When Charlie Hodgson kicked that penalty with the game entering its latter stages, I seriously believed that Wales had blown it, that the chance of a generation had so cruelly slipped through their grasp. I needn't have worried. When you have players of the class and confidence of Gavin Henson on the pitch, nothing, but nothing, is ever over until it's over. And boy did that winning penalty fly over.

It is impossible for anyone who hasn't played the game at this level to understand fully the difficulty of that winning kick. It was 45 metres out, right on the touchline, and everyone knew that in such a tight game this was likely to be the hit-or-bust moment.

It is a reflection of this 23-year-old's extraordinary talent that he made it appear so easy. Call it arrogance, call it outrageous self-belief, call it whatever you want, but if you could bottle that particular characteristic that Henson seems to have an inexhaustible supply of, then he would be a very rich young man indeed.

The man-of-the-match award was always going to be heading towards one player after such a match-deciding effort, although there was so much more to salivate over in Henson's performance than what occurred so memorably in that 76th minute.

He showed a ferocity in the tackle that is only now emerging - just ask the unfortunate debutant Mathew Tait, whose eardrums will be ringing until Christmas. Henson's kicking out of hand was as colossal and as accurate as all of us down here hoped it would be. And his instinctive awareness in always being able to pick the right option marks him out as the playmaker to guide Wales for many a year.

In an era of manufactured young players, it is an absolute delight - and not only for the Welsh - to see someone like Gavin coming to the fore. Purely and simply, he's a natural.

But it was not just Old Silver Boots that the Welsh had to crow about. The pack in the first half were exceptional too, gaining the parity with the English forwards that many feared would be beyond them. In fact, in that opening period, they did more than merely hold their own, and although they were put under the cosh somewhat in the second half, Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, can be immensely proud that in such a short amount of time he has transformed this unit into one that is at last fulfilling its undoubted potential.

Ruddock's gameplan had obviously been to move the English pack around and play in expansive style, and the only try of the match summed up the difference between the two sides. It was quick ball straight across the back line that did for the English, whose defensive team will look at the videos long and hard to deduce what went wrong.

I can tell them what went wrong: Mark Cueto went on the blitz defence when the rest of his back line went on a drift defence that was always struggling to play catch-up. All that was needed, then, was a wonderfully flighted ball from the No 8 Michael Owen and a trademark finish from the wing Shane Williams.

In contrast, England lacked any sort of cutting edge behind. Their pack performed admirably in the second half, but their back line was woefully lacking in ideas. Saying that, it just shows what a good side they are that they managed to nick a lead that I thought would be enough, especially when Wales failed to have a go for the drop goal that the situation demanded as the clock ticked down.

If Ruddock has to teach his men one thing, it's how to close a game down because, in truth, this was a match they should have won by a lot more points.

But this is no time for a Welshman to criticise. This is a time to rejoice in a fine win and the unique ability of a genuine superstar.

What's more, this day should act as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Confidence can take you to places you never dreamed of. Just ask Gavin Henson.

Comments