What's it all been about, Alfie? It's time to find out

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The Independent Online

The setting for the Wales team's press interviews last week was Sophia Gardens, the Cardiffian home to Glamorgan County Cricket Club. Outside, the pitch lay pristine and verdant in the late winter sunshine.

Inside, a poster advertised Freddie Flintoff versus the Pakistanis in the far-off summer. And one of the rugby boys, Gareth Thomas, known to all as Alfie, was getting his knickers in a twist over a programme article he had read on the loo. It was a pretty, yet pretty confusing, picture.

Will Wales carry on, now that their Grand Slam is gone, with their knockabout approach to the Six Nations' Championship? Might they bluff newly confident Scotland this afternoon, and leather the ball to all corners of the Millennium Stadium? Could it be a double bluff, in which case Wales - "an ambitious side and it suits us", to quote the wing Shane Williams - will stay the same way, come what may?

In the search for answers, prior to the fact as it were, we had first to get clear of the episode of Alfie versus the ghost writer. Graham Thomas, namesake of but otherwise not particularly close to the Wales captain, helped produce Gavin Henson's incendiary book, My Grand Slam Year. He is also a freelance tabloid journalist and the presenter of BBC Wales TV's magazine programme Scrum V. When Gareth Thomas and the rest of the Wales squad hauled Henson over the coals before Christmas for his published comments they believed it drew a line under the affair. Graham Thomas's retaliatory salvo in the England-Wales programme, defending Henson's right to say what he liked, rubbed out that line.

With Alfie, as down-to-earth as a daffodil bulb, it is usual to stray into "too much information" territory. So on Thursday, while he apologised for his media boycott the day before - a counter-productive attempt at shooting the messenger - we also learned how his bowel movements pre-England had been rudely disturbed. Moreover, the team manager, Alan Phillips, revealed that they were discussing the offending article within half an hour of the final whistle, when the 29-0 scoreline by which England hammered Wales in the final 30 minutes of the 47-13 defeat might have been expected to be top topic.

Next week Henson is due to play for Ospreys against the Borders after a seven-week ban; then he is in line for a Wales recall against Ireland. Gareth Thomas brushed off the suggestions that Henson remains persona non grata - "We'll welcome him back," he said - and that the players had thumbed their noses at the coach, Mike Ruddock, and the management over the refusal to do interviews.

Had we been at Swansea there might have been a whiff of Malcolm Nash about it - every press man's delivery smashed out of the ground. What cannot be disputed is that Wales ran the ball at almost every opportunity at Twickenham and, whatever the rumours of differences of opinion between players and coaches, they presented a united front on continuing that policy.

"We have a lot of players able to play an off-the-cuff, quick and open game," said Williams, a member of an unchanged XV to meet the Scots. "I think perhaps we tried it a little bit too much against England, there were times to play a structured game. We made it easier for them because we did hand the ball back so deep in our own half.

"But there's a never-say-die attitude in the team and that's a good thing. Yeah, we lost by 40 points in the end, but I don't think we were that bad. We've got to keep our heads. We know we're a lot better than we've shown."

When Ruddock was asked whether, in the absence of nine front-line players injured or suspended, a more conservative approach was needed, he replied: "If we'd had that mentality, we'd never have got back into the game in France last year, we'd never have won the Grand Slam. There are going to be pragmatists who argue for slowing the game down but we'll play a high tempo, and I stand or fall by that."

And Williams concurred, partly in the belief that his side will not get the same run of bad refereeing decisions from Steve Walsh as they got from Paul Honiss at Twickenham. Mark Jones's early break was nullified by an offside-looking Steve Borthwick; at least three England tries were dubious under the laws; Martyn Williams's yellow card was debatable.

"I think it's a shame we're not capable of doing the Grand Slam again this year - and that's it," said Shane. "We can still win this tournament. We certainly know we can play a lot better. It's been a tough training week, trying to get things right that didn't work against England. We're a team that sticks together and will hopefully come back stronger. To be honest, the spirit seems a lot stronger with the Wales squad than any club I've played for."

Williams says his Scottish wing opponents, Chris Paterson and Sean Lamont, are as familiar to him through Celtic League and international tussles as they are different from each other. "Sean is a big man who takes a lot of stopping. Chris has got quick feet and a good kicking game." To run or to kick? We'll soon find out.

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