Historic Slam triumph raises Welsh horizons
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
"I hope Wales is rocking at the moment," mused Warren Gatland, an hour or so after Rhys Priestland had booted the ball high into the stands to spark wild celebrations at the Millennium Stadium.
You can bet on it Warren. Rocking, rolling and revelling deep into another Grand Slam night, a third in eight years, and the second in five years on his watch.
It wasn't pretty at times, and there was little of the flowing rugby we have come to associate with his young side in the past year. But it was mightily effective, impressively composed, and their triumph was richly deserved.
There were several scary moments - Imanol Harinordoquy bearing down on Leigh Halfpenny metres from the Welsh line after a cheeky French line-out routine, and French replacement Jean-Marcellin Butin racing onto a quickly-taken cross-kick to the left touchline from a penalty chief among them.
A score on either occasion might have caused the favourites to falter. But as they have throughout this championship, Wales rose to the challenge of the moment, their self-belief intact. The slight figure of Halfpenny stood up to the marauding French number eight; man-of-the-match Dan Lydiate raced across to make the decisive cover tackle.
Other moments combined to make the majority of the 74,178 present wonder if another red letter day was assured after all: the penalties from Rhys Priestland and Halfpenny that came back off an upright, the announcement that captain Sam Warburton would not be returning for the second half.
Wales celebrate their third Grand Slam in eight years, and their 11th overall. Photo: Getty
With France never less than a converted try away on the scoreboard, the tension ratcheted up into a deafening crescendo. Only when referee Craig Joubert raised his left hand to the air to signal the last of 23 penalties (10 against Wales, 13 against France) with seconds remaining, was the Cardiff amphitheatre finally drenched in blessed relief and the party officially started.
Ryan Jones, who replaced Warburton after the interval, carried his blonde baby son around the pitch; Halfpenny received a bear hug from Rob Howley. Shaun Edwards repeatedly punched the air in delight. Alun Wyn Jones donned a red bowler hat to set off his huge grin. Ian Evans attempted a robot dance on the touchline. Even Gatland couldn't wipe the smile off his face.
Wales had played at times as though intent on not losing the match, rather than going all out to win it.
As Howley observed, it was something of "throwback" game in terms of the aerial ping-pong, Priestland and Halfpenny launching the ball high into the Cardiff sky on at least a dozen occasions, often with little reward, and Lionel Beauxis replied in kind.
Even when Wales did find themselves in French territory, the favoured option - even for the likes of Jamie Roberts - was a chip ahead, a grubber kick to the corner. Game management, territory and field position were Wales' watchwords, the prize on offer - and the threat posed by a belligerent French side relishing the role as party-poopers - too great to indulge in fantasy rugby.
The gainline battle was ferocious, and some bodies laid on it did not last the course.
Captain Warburton's departure meant he only ended up playing one whole game - admittedly a man-of-the-match turn against England - in this campaign, and two other halves.
Such was the pain from his damaged shoulder that he could not even use his right hand for shaking others at the official presentation. He used his left to raise the Six Nations trophy aloft on one side, with Gethin Jenkins on the other.
It was appropriate that Jenkins - who led the side against Scotland and Italy, and took over the captaincy for the second half here - should be centre stage. Alongside Adam Jones and Ryan Jones, the 31-year-old two-time Lions prop has now joined some elite company - Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams, Gerald Davies - as a three-time Welsh Grand Slam winner.
Gatland was understandably reluctant to compare his own team to those revered sides - "different times, different eras" - and perhaps definitive judgement should wait until the scale of the current side's achievement is fully realised. With nine players aged 25 or under in the starting line-up, this is a side that should still have its best years ahead of it.
Leigh Halfpenny converted a try and added three penalties during the match. Photo: Reuters
Then again, they only had to win four matches to complete a clean sweep in those days. Winning a Slam in the Six Nations era is by definition harder because you have to win an extra game. Yet Wales' triumph is the eighth time in 13 years that one has been completed since 2000. And Wales have joined the French as three-time Grand Slammers in the Six Nations era.
Historically only England, who won four Grand Slams in eight years from 1921 to 1928 - and three in five years from 1991 to 1995 - and France, who won four Grand Slams in eight years from 1997 to 2004 - have done better. Wales, with 11 Slams, are now within one of England's record of 12.
Since Gatland's first season in 2008, Wales have now won 18 and lost seven in the Championship, a 72% success rate. The most exciting aspect for the whole Red Dragonhood is the promise of more.
Wales already had arguably five world-class players in Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Sam Warburton, Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts. The likes of Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau, Luke Charteris, Ian Evans, Jonathan Davies, George North and Leigh Halfpenny have all the ingredients to achieve similar status, if some of them are not there already.
Wales now have a squad rich in quality and depth: 22 players started at least one game in this campaign, and 30 players were used in all. No longer are Wales irrevocably damaged by the loss of two or three frontline players to injury.
Jenkins, Warburton and Charteris were all missing at various times, but their absence did not affect performance levels or results.
While the line-out still creaked on occasions here, there was more evidence of the source of strength the Welsh scrum has become, while the defence was again heroic - a tribute to assistant coach Edwards, who described himself as "the conscience of the players".
Edwards had set his players a target of not conceding more than 11 points, and they surpassed that. Their total of 58 points conceded in five matches surpassed their Six Nations record of 66 in the 2008 campaign. They did not concede a try in their last three matches of this one.
Their work ethic was evident in the way Alun Wyn Jones fought to win the turnover on the floor that led to the all-important try. Wales' backs - who have scored all their 10 tries - have been pigeon-holed as all power and little pizzazz, but the way Alex Cuthbert cut a dash past three Frenchman with a devastating sidestep off the right touchline would have pleased Gerald Davies in his prime.
Gatland's next target is to start beating the three major southern hemisphere sides on a consistent basis in the run-up to the next World Cup in 2015.
"We are not at that level yet, and that is our big aim," said the New Zealander. "But we have got a young enough side that hopefully over the next few years can do that."
That is for the future. This particular Grand Slam party will be rocking for a while yet.