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Page last updated at 20:21 GMT, Saturday, 8 March 2008

The Red revolution

Shane Williams celebrates Wales' victory over Ireland in Dublin
Shane Williams became Wales' joint all-time leading Test try scorer

By Tom Fordyce
BBC Sport, Croke Park

Forget Jekyll and Hyde, Cinderella and the Ugly Duckling. The metamorphosis of Wales from dismal World Cup failures to Grand Slam favourites is the most remarkable transformation of the lot.

The triumph over Ireland that sealed the Triple Crown might not have been gloriously pretty. Like much of this Six Nations tournament, it was a match full of relentless effort, the occasional clanger and absorbing application.

But the thousands of Welsh fans who danced their way back from Croke Park to the beer pumps of Temple Bar afterwards cared not a jot.

The dream is on. And this Wales team has the spine of steel that could just make it reality.

The pre-match worries about their vulnerability at the line-out, particularly with the ill Huw Bennett being replaced just before kick-off by the previously shaky Matthew Rees, proved unfounded.

While Ireland tried to exploit that reputation by kicking for touch 13 times to Wales' two, the visitors won all but one of their 15 line-outs.

Crucially, Wales played a smart game when twice reduced to 14 men after the yellow cards given to Mike Phillips and Martyn Williams.

Shane Williams is one of most exciting players I've ever seen play rugby, league or union

Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards

They retained possession, kept it tight and tried to see out those two 10-minute periods camped out in Ireland's half of the field - so much so that they spent almost 33 minutes of the second period in their opponents' territory.

Coach Warren Gatland has pulled off the impressive feat of making huge improvements to the defensive part of his side's game without sacrificing the flair that defines Welsh rugby.

A team so porous during the World Cup that they managed to ship two tries against Canada alone has now conceded the same number in four Six Nations games.

Neither of the tries conceded saw the defensive line breached in traditional manner, either; one came from a cross-kick and the other from a line-out throw error by Rees.

At the same time they have scored nearly half as many points again as any other team in the championship. Even in Saturday's tight, tense atmosphere they completed 147 passes to Ireland's 75.

They also have in Shane Williams a player who, even 40 international tries in, still has the capacity to amaze.

Not only did he step into Phillips' boots at scrum-half with Úlan, in a throwback to his early days in the sport, but he also produced what was - by his own admission - the first hand-off of his career to score the match-winning try.


Defence coach Shaun Edwards has been given much of the credit for Wales' re-emergence, but the man himself insisted it is entirely down to the players.

"We felt that the players had the skills and ability, but that we needed to give them work ethic to succeed," he said on Saturday.

"The attitude of the players has been absolutely superb. I can't speak highly enough of how hard they worked.

"And Shane Williams is one of most exciting players I've ever seen play rugby, league or union. He's a very special player."

When Martyn Williams was sent to the sin-bin with 19 minutes to go and Ronan O'Gara's subsequent penalty cut the lead to just four points, a collective groan of fear went round the Welsh fans.

The championship, let alone the Grand Slam, hung in the balance. Yet despite O'Gara landing another penalty to shave the lead to a single point, and the deafening choruses of "Fields of Athenry" that followed, Wales stood firm.

We're making good progress but we had opportunities to score more points and we didn't quite take them

Wales coach Warren Gatland

It was Ireland who cracked, replacement Bernard Jackman crashing into Ryan Jones's back in a ruck to concede a needless penalty and gift James Hook the chance to put Wales a clear score in front.

To Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan, this new Welsh hybrid is superior to the model which won the Grand Slam three years ago.

"They're playing with the confidence of 2005, with a style of rugby they enjoy playing," he said.

"Their defence is also so good - it's much harder to break them down than before. Those two things make a big difference."

Gatland - whose Wales record reads played four, won four - also appears to have rid the camp of any trace of complacency.

Even as the Welsh hordes were piling into Guinness back in the middle of town, the coach was talking of the need to improve still further.

"We're two years away from being a good side," he said.

Ryan Jones celebrates with the Triple Crown trophy
Ryan Jones plans to shut his curtains and turn off his phone

"We're making good progress but we had opportunities to score more points and we didn't quite take them. We could have put the game beyond them.

"We stressed that we needed to keep our discipline and that we shouldn't get involved in any silly incidents, but we've got to remind the players how costly yellow cards can be.

"They cost you Test matches. We got away with it today but we can't hide behind the issue."

This will be a long, crazy week for Gatland, his team and every Welsh rugby fan.

Skipper Jones has already admitted that his plan for the next seven days is to "go home, shut my curtains and turn off my answerphone".

But a side who were lucky to be just 13 points behind at half-time in their first Six Nations match of the season, who were laughed out of France six months ago, now has a very real chance of pulling off a Grand Slam.

If it wasn't all based on so much brutal hard work, you'd call it a fairy story.

see also
Ireland 12-16 Wales
08 Mar 08 |  Rugby Union
BBC Sport Wales coverage
07 Aug 07 |  Wales
Rugby union positions guide
05 Feb 07 |  Laws & Equipment

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