From slummers to slammers in five quick steps. Only four months or so ago Wales was almost in mourning as the national team were knocked out of the World Cup by Fiji. The Welsh Rugby Union went into panic mode as they replaced one coach, Gareth Jenkins, with another, the New Zealander Warren Gatland. The turnaround has been astonishing.
Last night the Welsh cleared the final hurdle on their way to the Grand Slam, beating France by two goals and five penalties to four penalties. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Shane Williams, who had already scored five tries in the Six Nations, got his milestone sixth after a fairly dire 60 minutes, effectively sealing the Slam. In the dying minutes Martyn Williams, another stand-out performer, scored a breakaway try as a record crowd at the Millennium Stadium threatened to take the roof off. A decision was made last week to close the roof – there would be no rain on the parade – and last night the pitch was about the only thing in Wales that was dry.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," Martyn Williams said. "For long periods we were without the ball and that was when the character of the team showed. We've had a bit of luck along the way but were rewarded for working so hard."
When, in the late 1990s, Welsh rugby was on its knees they turned to the Kiwi Graham Henry who, for a while, became known as the Great Redeemer. Some coaches wait forever to win a Grand Slam; Gatland has worked the oracle in record time. He brought something else to the table. Not only did he persuade Martyn Williams, who was made man of the match yesterday, to come out of Test retirement but he lured the Wasps coach Shaun Edwards – they worked together at the London club – to cross the Severn Bridge and work on a part-time basis.
Shane Williams' try equalled one record, the six scored in one Six Nations tournament by Will Greenwood, and beat another, Gareth Thomas's total of 40 for Wales. But that wasn't the only striking achievement of a triumphant campaign. In their five victories Wales conceded only two tries and that is two fewer than anybody else since Italy were added to the mix.
Making their exit from the World Cup, Wales conceded 38 points to Fiji. Gatland and Edwards would have thought it was a horror show and it is the latter who is acknowledged as a specialist in defence. "It just goes to show the hard work we've put in since the World Cup," Shane Williams said. "That and the fact that we're scared stiff of Shaun."
Edwards, who could have been working with England had they been prepared to share him with Wasps, said: "The credit should go to the players. I didn't make one tackle in the competition." He did point out, however, that one of the two tries Wales conceded was an interception.
James Hook, who has interchanged with Stephen Jones during the championship, watched Wales's last Slam in 2005 from a bar in Cardiff. Here, he kicked his side into a 9-6 lead at half-time with three penalties in the first 22 minutes. He also made a quite brilliant offload which might have led to a try for Mark Jones but the wing slipped as he approached Anthony Floch, the France full-back.
Wales had such a comfortable points difference that France needed to win by 20 points to retain the title. Although they enjoyed the odd period of supremacy, and forced Wales's defence to make 128 tackles, with only six missed, they brought very little else to the party.
Gavin Henson supplied another statistic – he has now started 10 Six Nations games for Wales and they have won the lot. That takes in two Grand Slams. The prodigal son who has never played in a World Cup may have started yesterday's climax but he came close not to finishing it. He had been prominent in attack when, on the stroke of half-time, he attacked the Adam's apple of the flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo, who required treatment. It was a cheap shot, particularly as Hook had already put in a perfectly good tackle.
So, a penalty to France enabled Jean-Baptiste Elissalde to make it 9-6. Henson went off for 10 minutes but France could not make it count. Instead Wales, with Jones on for Hook, grew in stature and France gave up the ghost. A pass from David Skrela, meant for Yannick Jauzion, was hacked on by Shane and the rest is history. They should make a western about him.
The game had been crying out for a try and the little wing has been supplying some of the best in the tournament. The error just about summed up France's misfiring championship and it certainly epitomised Williams' wonderful contribution. He may be small, but by goodness he is deadly.
When Wales won the Slam, again against all the odds, in 2005, under Mike Ruddock, they were unable to kick on. The trick this time is to accentuate the positive.
Last night Gatland said: "The players thoroughly deserved to win this competition and I'm really proud of them. During the competition they got stronger mentally and they definitely got stronger physically. They improved game by game but we don't want to stop there. We want to test ourselves against the best in the world."
They only have to wait until the summer, when they visit the world champions, South Africa.Reuse content