Wales 29 France 12: Williams the richer as Welsh live large

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The Independent Online

The scene at the Wales team hotel yesterday may not quite have been the blithering mess left by England's Ashes celebrations but there was still a definite feel of the morning after the night that had gone on and on and on before.

They say Warren Gatland has given this Wales side resolve. Well, they were in need of their coach dishing it out by the bucketload following their Grand Slam party. It was a similar scenario throughout the rest of the Principality as a nation awoke with thumping heads and skipping hearts. Yet never have hangovers been so gratefully received.

The story of how Wales were transformed from the inferiors of Fiji to the superiors of Europe in five months flat will long be told and long be disbelieved. Before Saturday, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde had urged his French team-mates to remember that their opponents were "just the Welsh". Just? It is time for a radical rethink as far as the Red Dragonhood's status is concerned.

They are totally unrecognisable from the rabble who exited the World Cup so embarrassingly last September. Indeed, they don't much resemble the Grand Slam winners from 2005.

In yesterday's inquest Shane Williams summed up how Gatland has inspired one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of rugby, if not of all sport, with three apt initials. "CSI," he said. "Clarity, structure and intensity."

Williams is the embodiment of all three and more widely of Wales' startling improvement. Not only does he seem half a yard quicker at the age of 31 but gone is the propensity to make the occasional daft decision as well as the calamitous blunder.

His breaking of Gareth Thomas's try record is still being toasted all over the country, although nowhere quite as ecstatically as in his parents' house in Amman Valley. Before he won his first cap, his father placed £50 at 500-1 that his boy would set a new Wales scoring record and will now pick up a cool £25,000. That the bet came in at the most glorious moment imaginable is merely par for the course for the wing who will today surely be named as the recipient of the Player of the Tournament award.

Williams has always boasted that it is all about timing and there was no better time to seize on a French fumble than the 60th minute of this torrid encounter. The scoreboard read 9-9, the atmosphere in the ground was tetchy to the point of agonised and then Shane put on the burners. The BBC revealed that in the race for the whitewash he had propelled those little legs to a speed of 23mph. This blistering turn of foot also gave him a share of Will Greenwood's Championship record of six tries in a season and completed his own full house.

France were the only top-flight nation he had not scored against and when one stacked all these "firsts" and records together it was easy to see why Welshmen were swearing that fate had helped him over that line.

It certainly gave Wales the lift they were so desperate for and nine minutes later it was effectively all over. In the shadow of their own posts, Wales shunted the French scrum back and there and then the players realised the glory was theirs as well as the ball. "That's when we knew we had them, that we'd cracked them and they had nothing left," said the captain, Ryan Jones. "It was the turning point of the match."

Adam Jones, the dreadlocked prop understandably agreed. "Shane's a mate of mine and I'd like to say his try was the turning point," said the tight head. "But stuff him. That scrum was." Even Williams, himself, said that the front five deserved the accolade as their contribution had been on the hefty side of immense throughout the tournament. And to think they were supposed to be the weak link.

Try telling that to Ryan Jones, who topped both the carry count (10) and the tackle count (20) on Saturday. Or to Martyn Williams, the flanker who was named man of the match after his 77th-minute try capped off a masterclass of open-side play. He puts his head places where most humans would not dare poke a steel toe-cap and it was such bravery and all-round savvy that led Jonathan Davies into making quite a claim.

"Martyn is the best flanker in the world," said the former out-side-half. "And I include Richie McCaw in that."

Yes, it was an evening for the big statement and perhaps the biggest came from the incredible Welsh defence. Gavin Henson was a sheer monster in leading the defensive line and was so central to the Welsh effort of restricting France to the flimsiest of half-chances that he is excused his instant of madness when almost removing Fulgence Ouedraogo's larynx with a high tackle that earned him a yellow card at the end of the first half. Never have France had so much of the possession (60 per cent) and failed to touch down. This was the crowing achievement of what is now, officially, the best Six Nations defence ever.

They only conceded two tries all Championship – yep, a record – and, remarkably, none in the final seven halves they played. No wonder Shaun Edwards, the miser in chief, allowed himself a rare smile. "We have a saying that offence sells tickets, defence wins championships," said Gatland's assistant. "The attitude in defence has superseded anything I could have dreamt of. To concede only two tries in five games is a massive credit to the players."

In return, the players were quick to credit Edwards and Shane Williams urged the WRU to straighten up any confusion over his contract. "To lose Shaun would be a massive blow, but I'm sure the WRU will do everything they can to keep him," he said.

Edwards admitted after the final whistle that "my contract is up in the air", which only fed the Welsh paranoia that England will come calling and tempt him away. But while acknowledging that the RFU has the money to launch such a raid, Gatland doubted whether his great friend would go. "Why would he want to leave everything he's got here to work for England?" he wondered incredulously.

Why, indeed? He has already revolutionised a defence that, don't forget, shipped four tries to Fiji six games ago and where he and Gatland can take Wales in the forthcoming months is mind-boggling. But then, everything seemed mind-boggling in the cold light of yesterday. All Gatland could remember of Saturday night was "being dragged into a crowd of women", but that was distinctly more than Ryan Jones could recall. "They tell me it was a good night," he said. "All I can testify is that it was one hell of a day before that."

It began with a journey to the ground that none of the players will ever forget. Ian Gough, the second-rower who won his 50th cap, provided a descriptive travelogue. "Just getting to the ground was an experience in itself," he said. "It was pandemonium in the city centre. We slowed to a crawl as we got closer, even though we had policemen on horses and outriders trying to clear a path. There were people banging on the windows and giving us the thumbs up. That sends a tingle down your spine. If you want to know how much this means to the Welsh people just walk into any bar in the next 24 hours – make that the next week."

Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), G Henson (Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); J Hook (Ospreys), M Phillips (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Blues), H Bennett (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), A Wyn Jones (Ospreys), J Thomas (Ospreys), M Williams (Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt). Replacements: S Jones (Scarlets) for Hook, 56; M Rees (Scarlets) for Bennett, 56; D Jones (Ospreys) for A Jones, 71; I Evans (Ospreys) for Gough, 71.

France: A Floch (Clermont); V Clerc (Toulouse), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), D Traille (Biarritz), J Malzieu (Clermont); D Skrela (Stade Français), J-B Élissalde (Toulouse); F Barcella (Auch), D Szarzewski (Stade Français), N Mas (Perpignan), L Nallet (Castres, capt), J Thion (Biarritz), T Dusautoir, F Ouedraogo (Montpelier), J Bonnaire (Clermont). Replacements: W Servat (Toulouse) for Szarzewski (44), J-B Poux (Albi) for Mas (62), A Mela (Clermont) for Thion (75), E Vermeulen (Clermont) for Ouedraogo (62), F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier) for Skrela (63), D Yachvili (Biarritz) for Élissalde (67), C Heymans (Toulouse) for Floch (67).

Referee: M Jonker (South Africa).

Millennium Stadium details