Wales awakens to realise epic dream

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How sweetly will Wales dream tonight? It is arguably the most compelling question of the sporting year as the Grand Slam - the first in 27 years - beckons at the Millennium Stadium.

How sweetly will Wales dream tonight? It is arguably the most compelling question of the sporting year as the Grand Slam - the first in 27 years - beckons at the Millennium Stadium.

If it happens, if the Irish, the fierce and disappointed Irish, are beaten, the scale of the satisfaction and the joy will naturally be huge. It will also provoke a memory or two about how it was when Wales took such triumphs not as an improbable glory but as a right of birth and, they would say with some weight, the unbroken links of native genius.

Such certainties may be elusive for perhaps a year or two. The great Welsh team of the Seventies, after all, did not just happen, any more than the contenders brilliantly marshalled by today's fervent coach, Mike Ruddock.

Inevitably, though, the flow of remembrance will be rich and moving, and in some cases quite wry. It is, for example, going on 30 years now since EFAT, a crack unit of Welsh rugby followers, raised one of their members to the peerage a few days after a siege of Edinburgh which included the taking of Murrayfield without too many prisoners.

Forty-eight hours after the return to base - a corner of the Newport valley - one member's failure to report to HQ, a pub with the most liberal opening hours this side of Marrakesh, provoked a search party.

Naturally, they started at the missing soldier's cottage. What they found was disquieting. Two pints of milk at the door, untouched. Two days' newspapers, still neatly wrapped. They agreed there was no alternative, they had to bust in. But it was then they heard the snoring, gentle, rhythmic snoring. A neighbour reported that it had been going on for two days, rising and falling but with scarcely a break. Memory plays tricks, but the consensus was that it was Stan the Pies who conferred the title: Lord Horlicks.

It was an epic sleep and an epic dream and today, who knows tonight, or tomorrow morning, millions of Welshmen may know such bliss.

EFAT - it stood for Excuse for a Trip - may not have survived the lean years of Welsh rugby, but we must hope it has because behind all the jokes and the flippancy - they issued a red club tie with their initials neatly inscribed in yellow - there was a fierce celebration of national pride. Above all, there was respect for the men who made the glory.

They said they went to Edinburgh and Twickenham, Dublin and Paris, just for the good times but you knew it wasn't entirely true. When the talk turned to rugby a little steel came into their eyes and the debates were fierce and passionate and deeply knowledgeable.

When you went to the pub on a rain-scoured night the chances were that you would see EFAT's éminence grise Gareth Edwards, sitting in the corner, sipping a pint, dipping into the conversation, chuckling at some of the excesses, but plainly secure in the space that was granted.

Edwards, winner of three Grand Slams and voted the best player of the 20th century, was a god; he couldn't move in most of Wales for fear of being mobbed, and so the pub in the valley was a perfect refuge.

It was around that time that Barry John, recently retired, fought off one admiring lady in a London bar with the lightly ironic line, "I'm sorry, love, but I've got to get the last train from Paddington; if I don't, Wales won't open up in the morning."

When Edwards and the younger John first met on the Welsh training field, the scrum-half asked his new partner, who had emerged so dazzlingly, how he liked to receive the ball and the young lion's response is now a legendary statement about the state of mind of a great generation of Welsh rugby players: "Gareth, you throw it, I'll catch it."

That was Welsh rugby then, vibrantly confident, bold, unshakeable in its belief that it would go on remaking itself. Now today, six days after the dismantling of Scotland, the penultimate step on the road to the first Grand Slam since 1978, and the ennobling of Lord Horlicks, we have the prospect of both history revisited and a nation's sublime sporting expression reborn, officially and with knobs on.

It would be a mean neutral indeed who, having seen Ireland fail bravely to rediscover the best of their rugby history - the 1948 triumph of Jackie Kyle's team - under the charismatic leadership of Brian O'Driscoll, would begrudge Wales this crowning of a stunning renaissance.

Stunning, yes, because on offer at the Millennium Stadium today is something more than a mere retooled sports team, splendidly coached and unusually gifted. It is nothing less than a restatement of one of the greatest glories of team sport. It is that nations can take hold of a game, as they can music or poetry, and shape it to their own best characteristics.

The beauty in Cardiff today is that when the great men of the Seventies, demi-gods like Edwards, John, Phil Bennett, J P R Williams and Gerald Davies gather, the thrilling possibility is that they will see a strikingly similar version to the game they played; a game of pace and bold running and, above all, wit and imagination.

It means that if there is a special lift in the stride going to the Millennium Stadium it is surely because Wales have come again as recognisably themselves. They haven't mutated into a bunch of well-organised bruisers, desperate to regain a toe-hold in a sport they had once so brilliantly enhanced but they had seen pass them by. Though obliged to rethink and reorganise in the most profound way, Welsh rugby has remembered what it once was and grasped at the possibility that, with some extraordinary will, it might just go the same way again.

Of course, there will be a little terror in the Welsh soul today, a seeping fear that the victories over England, Italy, France - their ultimate statement of recovery - and Scotland might just lead to an appalling anticlimax. Pessimism, after all, is not exactly a stranger to the Welsh spirit, and today much of it will centre on fears that the Irish, who showed the extent of their obduracy against England a few weeks ago, will craft a mean and powerful performance.

Certainly, Ireland's knowing coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, will hammer at the folly of allowing the Welsh anything vaguely approaching the amount of ball they used with such coruscating force in the first half at Murrayfield last Sunday. Ronan O'Gara, a fine tactical kicker, will surely play for the corners, and the pack can be expected to hoard the ball as a besieged garrison guards the basics of life.

But, yes, we know that Wales can seize their moment because we saw what they did in Paris a few weeks ago. We saw them battered and bewildered to the point of collapse by a brilliant revival of French running, passing rugby. At that point there was a strong temptation to believe another crowd of illusions had gone trailing down the low road of history.

Yet the new Wales found something of the spirit of the old; they found belief and conviction and a wonderful élan. It was as though another small nation of sporting genius, the Hungarian footballers of the Fifties, had unearthed some of the old magic of Puskas rather than slide away into long of years of disillusionment. Before they disappeared from the front rank of international football, the Hungarians notoriously helped kick Brazil out of the 1966 World Cup.

That was a betrayal of the game they had made so beautiful. Whatever happens today, no such charge could be levelled at Welsh rugby. No doubt intimidated for a while by the apparently relentless power of their World Cup-winning neighbours, England, they knew some desperate days indeed. They suffered the Samoa jokes, they lost to Italy, they despaired that the valleys would ever yield another world-class rugby player.

Yet the boys did come again, running and passing in one of the most exuberant examples of renewal any sport has ever seen, and now you have to believe that their day has arrived. It is when they make the dream real and, we know for sure, it is one that will maybe last a little longer than just a couple of days.