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Last Updated: Monday, 21 March, 2005, 07:07 GMT
Wonderful Wales exude joy of Six
By Bryn Palmer

Without Wales, this year's Six Nations Championship might have been a slightly mundane affair.

As it was, Mike Ruddock's side single-handedly lit up a tournament otherwise short on star quality with a dazzling exhibition of running rugby.

With England in transition, France flitting between brilliant and bland and Ireland wilting in the face of expectations, Wales took the opportunity to rediscover their old élan.

Their achievement in winning a first Grand Slam since 1978, their ninth in total, was wildly celebrated, and with good reason.

From 50-1 outsiders for a clean sweep at the outset, they grew in confidence and swagger with every game after a pivotal opening victory over England.

The value of Gavin Henson's winning penalty in Cardiff cannot be over-stated.

Another narrow defeat to one of the big boys may have seen Wales' soaring potential remain unlocked, at least for another season.

Instead, they scored some dazzling tries in Rome the following week, with the dancing feet of Shane Williams to the fore.

Then came the piéce de resistance, an epic victory over France in Paris after a torrid opening half-hour when they were run ragged.

It was the outstanding match of the tournament, with both sides playing some brilliant rugby, France in the first half, Wales after the break.

Wales wing Shane Williams takes on the Ireland defence
Shane Williams shone for Wales
Having survived that test of character, Wales plundered another six tries (they scored 17 in all) in a crushing victory in Edinburgh, before Saturday's date with destiny against Ireland.

After a nervous first 15 minutes, a wonderful piece of opportunism from prop Gethin Jenkins restored Welsh belief and they went on to claim the Slam with something to spare.

It was only the third time in the last 15 years, after Wales in 1994 and Scotland in 1999, that the Championship had been prised from the hands of either England and France.

So what of Europe's two traditional powerhouses, who now find themselves behind the resurgent Welsh in the official International Rugby Board world rankings?

England had the hardest schedule of anyone, but it was still a surprise they lost all three opening matches.

Deprived of a raft of senior players including goalkicking king Jonny Wilkinson, they lacked the experienced heads to close out three tight matches.

How they managed to surrender a 17-6 half-time lead to France at Twickenham will remain one of the mysteries of the age.

Wales W 5 L 0 Tries 17 Pts 10
France W 4 L 1 Tries 13 Pts 8
Ireland W 3 L 2 Tries 12 Pts 6
England W 2 L 3 Tries 16 Pts 4
Scotland W 1 L 4 Tries 8 Pts 2
Italy W 0 L 5 Tries 5 Pts 0
Despite finishing with two try-laden victories over Italy and Scotland, coach Andy Robinson still has remedial work to do if the world champions are to regain their former lustre.

The French, as is their wont, were a frustrating mixture of the sublime and the ridiculed, not least by their own supporters.

Pallid in the extreme at the outset against Scotland, they also won few friends, but unbelievably the match, at Twickenham.

But they showed what they could do against Wales and oozed class in Dublin, where they proved they are a match for anyone when they put their minds to it.

Perhaps the biggest disappointments were Ireland, who started out seemingly set fair on a course towards a first Grand Slam since 1948.

But at no point did the men in green really seem to believe in that destiny, the weight of expectation all too apparent in some patchy performances.

Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll touches down against France
O'Driscoll produced the individual try of the tournament against France
They stumbled to victory in Italy, produced a good half-hour in Edinburgh, and were fortunate not to find an England side in more ruthless mood in Dublin.

Their aspirations were mocked by a dominant France, even if the genius of Brian O'Driscoll nearly salvaged an unlikely victory.

And against Wales, the Irish were made to look a tired, ageing side, flailing against their own limitations and inadequacies.

But if Eddie O'Sullivan has plenty to ponder, what now for Scotland and Italy?

Neither have sufficient depth of quality to be anything other than poor relations for the immediate future.

Yet both coaches, Matt Williams and John Kirwan, face a battle to stave off the sack as public dissatisfaction grows.

Scotland did belatedly play some rugby in their final two matches, but were woefully inadequate in defence, while Italy employ a limited game plan with the players they have.

But if their immediate outlook looks bleak, in the RBS Six Nations salvation can be just around the corner.

Two years ago Wales failed to win a match, and now look at them.

Highlights: Wales 32-20 Ireland

Presentation: Wales lift the Six Nations Trophy

Interview: Wales' coach Mike Ruddock

Interview: Wales scrum-half Dwayne Peel


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