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Can Wales handle favourites' mantle?

Captain Ryan Jones holds the Six Nations trophy aloft as Wales celebrate their 2008 Grand Slam

By Gareth Charles
BBC Wales' Scrum V Rugby correspondent

Only five teams in the history of the Five or Six Nations championship have completed back-to-back Grand Slams.

Could Warren Gatland's 2008 winners emulate the immortals of Welsh rugby's first golden era and successfully defend their crown?

Wales were the first side to achieve successive Slams in 1908 and 1909, a feat matched by England three times - in 1913/14, 1923/24 and 1991/92 - and France in 1997/98.

So can the current side make history repeat itself 100 years on, and join the legendary side of the 1970s, that won three Grand Slams?

We assess how well they are equipped to deal with the pressure.

A PHOBIA OF FAVOURITISM? IT'S NOT UNUSUAL

The psyche of the Welsh nation tends to prefer being written off and having an against-the-odds go against the big boys. The Welsh are traditionally more comfortable being underdogs and not since the glory days of the 1970s have Wales revelled in being top dogs.

Andy Powell and Lee Byrne celebrate as Wales secured a rare Tri Nations scalp last November
Wales celebrate a Tri-Nations scalp

Failure to deal with that tag was evident in 2006 when Wales suffered the ultimate hangover from their 2005 Grand Slam party, only a solitary win over Scotland saving them going from clean sweep to whitewash.

This year Wales are rightly favourites, not just because of their superb Six Nations last year but their performances in the autumn, where the 21-18 victory over Australia was the only Tri-Nations scalp by a northern hemisphere side last November.

They also fared well against the All Blacks and should have beaten the world champion Springboks.

Gatland says Wales now have to "embrace the challenge" of being favourites. "If we want to be one of the best teams in the world, it is not going to be unusual," he says, echoing a favourite son of Wales.

MIND OVER MATTER

Wales' coaching team are winners and Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley have installed a new mentality, a new toughness that promotes dealing with, and excelling under, pressure, as they did - and Edwards still does - at Wasps.

Wales assistant coach Shaun Edwards
Edwards won major titles with Wasps

Their never-say-die philosophy was epitomised by Howley's last-gasp try which won Gatland's Wasps the 2004 Heineken Cup final against Toulouse.

Gatland and Edwards inspired the Londoners to three English Premiership titles and a Heineken Cup in 2004, so they are not going to allow Wales' players to relax after just one successful season.

Wales are ranked fifth in the world and Gatland, a ruthless coach who demands high standards, will want his team to show why they are Europe's number one side. With his motivational skills and the experience within the squad, Wales are the team to beat.

ONCE BITTEN, TWICE SHY

Wales are better off going into this Grand Slam defence than they were in 2006 as the relationship between the playing squad and head coach is much stronger.

A dejected Ian Gough eptomises the feeling in the Welsh camp after their 2007 World Cup exit
Wales went from 2005 Grand Slam winners to 2007 World Cup flops

The Mike Ruddock saga exploded in the middle of Wales' 2006 Six Nations campaign and the cracks of disharmony were starting to form in the autumn of 2005.

No factions exist in the Welsh squad now and Gatland and Edwards would never tolerate such player unrest; the present coaching team are held in the utmost respect.

You would not want to cross Edwards or let him down, so keeping up the honesty and work ethic is paramount.

Perhaps the Welsh boys could be accused of believing their own hype after the 2005 Slam, but with many of them still around, they know from bitter experience the great fall from such a wonderful high and will not get carried away.

ADAPTABILITY AND A 'PLAN B'

Wales have a dynamic style of rugby which rugby purists would prefer to see, but there is more to Gatland's team then "The Welsh Way".

Not having a Plan B was Wales' undoing in 2006 as teams quickly caught on how to stop their free-flowing, off-the-cuff style.

Shane Williams takes on the Italian defence to score in last season's Six Nations
Williams epitomises 'The Welsh Way'

The Welsh have always had players with a sprinkling of magic, that X Factor epitomised by dazzling wing Shane Williams who proves, that in rugby, good things do come in small packages.

They are not the biggest nation in the world so can never hope to outmuscle the bigger nations such as South Africa, but there is a harder edge to Welsh rugby.

Wales conceded just two tries in last year's Championship - a record - and showed in the way they killed the game at Croke Park by running down the clock, there is substance to go with the style.

That streetwise savvy is partly down to the coaches but also because the players are older, wiser and have developed physically to cope with that style of game.

GRABBING THE LIONS SHARE?

The Welsh players will be spurred on by a Lions tour to South Africa at the end of the season, knowing that Gatland, Edwards and Howley will be part of Ian McGeechan's coaching staff.

Wales duo Bradley Davies and Jamie Roberts celebrate Blues Heineken Cup quarter-final qualification
The regions' success will boost Wales

They know Gatland will show them no favours. On the contrary, Shane Williams, Ryan Jones, Gavin Henson and company will probably have to impress even more in this Six Nations so the coaches cannot be accused of favouritism towards their Welsh players.

Wales' Grand Slam success last year was also boosted by the European success of the regions.

The Welsh players left their clubs on a high following the Heineken Cup heroics of the Ospreys and Blues in qualifying for the quarter-finals - and the same has happened this year so the omens look positive. Such an injection of confidence is invaluable, making winning a habit.

QUALITY OF OPPOSITION

In such a short, condensed tournament, momentum is vital so victory against a rapidly-improving Scotland side first up could do wonders.

The trip to Murrayfield will be one of Wales' hardest games. Scotland impressed in the autumn and were disappointed not to beat South Africa, narrowly losing 14-10 in Edinburgh.

606: DEBATE

Wales also have to go to Paris to play France, who have some fantastic players but are so erratic. But with coach Marc Lievremont picking a more settled squad after last year's off-the-wall selection, expect better.

Ireland's top players are moving up the gears and their inspirational lock Paul O'Connell, a good bet for Lions captain, is in tremendous form.

Momentum plays such a huge part and the teams are pretty evenly matched, so another clean sweep this season is asking a lot. History may have to wait, but another title is well within reach.



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see also
Six Nations guide 2009
28 Jan 09 |  Rugby Union
Wales will get better - Gatland
28 Jan 09 |  Welsh
Wales told to 'accept pressure'
28 Jan 09 |  Welsh
Wales 21-18 Australia
29 Nov 08 |  Welsh
Wales 29-12 France
15 Mar 08 |  Welsh
Ruddock's legacy
15 Feb 06 |  Internationals
Ruddock told to quit immediately
16 Feb 06 |  Internationals
Wales 32-20 Ireland
19 Mar 05 |  Six Nations 2005
2011 rugby world cup fixtures
29 Jan 09 |  Fixtures
BBC Sport Wales coverage
03 Oct 11 |  Wales


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