Welsh spirit alive despite a video game culture

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The Independent Online

If this was the Great Redeemer's legacy, his poignant farewell note – and both his successor Steve Hansen and his captain, Scott Quinnell insisted it was – Graham Henry perhaps shouldn't be too hard on himself.

Nor should the flagellation of a once great rugby nation get too out of hand. Times, and the patterns of a small nation's life, change, and frequently at the cost of native genius.

Just ask the heirs of the Magnificent Magyar football team of men like Puskas and Kocsis. Puskas's father used to train the boys before they were absorbed into the state system. Well, he was alleged to have bought himself a litre of red at the wine shop and sat and watched them endlessly caressing the ball on a little field next to a railway siding in a Budapest suburb. Today, he would first have to yank them out of the local video arcade.

A few years ago the former Welsh rugby captain Ieuan Evans identified a similar problem. "When I was a lad you just wanted to play rugby, be like Gareth Edwards or Phil Bennett or Barry John, but even in my relatively short lifetime things have changed so much. The boys cry off training because they have parties, girlfriends, video games. I just don't know the answer."

Against such bleak realities, and in the light of coach Henry's bitter relinquishing of office in the pain of that slaughter at Lansdowne Road two weeks ago, what happened on Saturday was rather more than a desperately close run thing for the French. The 33-37 defeat, which contained oodles of spirit and two video rejections of tries in overtime, said that if Welsh rugby potency had ebbed depressingly it hadn't drained away entirely.

Indeed, even Hansen, a Kiwi so dour that a winning lottery ticket might not guarantee a grin, saw reason for a spark of optimism. "What happened in Dublin was bad," he said, "but it wasn't the true picture. Today was much more like it. We all worked hard to come to terms with the defeat by Ireland, and I think we can all be pleased – including Graham."

Beyond Hansen, though, and no doubt even the coaching genius of the late Carwyn James, is the short-term rectifying of a shortfall of forward power that left a huge burden on Scott Quinnell. The captain ran prodigiously with the ball, and prevented the total ascendancy of a French pack magnificently served by flankers Serge Betsen and Imanol Harinordoquy. Welsh dependency on Quinnell was starkly underlined by what happened to them when he was obliged to visit the sin-bin after a late collision of his forearm with the French full back Nicolas Brusque. Bernard Laporte, the French coach, who is fast building a reputation for tight discipline, seemed content enough with the yellow card handed to Quinnell. Heaven knows, it was punishing enough as the French scored 10 uninterrupted points in his absence.

The Welsh were abject at the line-out, some of their drills suggesting that they might have found inspiration in old footage of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. The effect was to even disorientate the French, who surrendered their complete mastery of the set-pieces by overthrowing into the arms of Scott Quinnell, who plunged over only to lose the video consultation. When Dafydd James lost another decision in the last gasp of added time, the Welsh effort was doomed to frustration. But not an abandonment of hope for the future.

Stephen Jones stepped into the vacancy left by the re-grouping Iestyn Harris with safe hands, a cool brow and a kicking foot equally reliable from the ground or from hand. The centre Andy Marinos repeatedly punched small but encouraging holes in the French cover, Craig Morgan looked increasingly assured on the left and, most helpfully this side of Jones's relentless hoarding of points, Robert Howley was again recognisable as a scrum half of endless resource and fight.

In the end the French, who at times look infinitely superior, especially in the shape of the man-of-the-match Betsen and the hugely promising Damien Traille, just got away with it. That doesn't say a lot for their chances against the English juggernaut at Stade de France in two weeks time, but they are plainly a work in progress. It is one stiffened by the arrival of the New Zealand-born Tony Marsh, a scorer of two tries of great conviction, and Traille.

Back home in the Pyrenees, Traille plays full back or wing. For France he provides a formidable (6ft 3in, 14st 7lb) presence at inside centre. He opened the French scoring with a long penalty that might have been fired by a howitzer. Two weeks earlier, he had steadied a haphazard French performance with a decisive try against the Italians. At 22, his future looks immense. How big? Barry John could scarcely contain his excitement. He said it reminded him of the time he first clapped his eyes on Serge Blanco.

The man who once told a female admirer in London that he had to get the last train home from Paddington, because Wales might not open in the morning if he didn't, could not quite single out a compatriot for such enthusiasm on Saturday. But he was on his feet, with a light in his eyes, when James made his despairing plunge for the line. The Kings of Welsh rugby may be in hiding but there is a little comfort. It is that Saturday said there is a little life left in the blood; enough, anyway, to engage a new redeemer.

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