Rugby Union: Wales on course to rewrite their history books; Six Nations Championship Showdown Wales v France, Millennium Stadium, Tomorrow, 5pm.
TO those who think Wales can do a number on France tomorrow the Grand Slam omens look good.
Warren Gatland's team will be looking to complete are markable piece of historical symmetry when they run out at the Millennium Stadium searching for a second Six Nations clean sweep in four attempts.
Victory against France would provide Wales with their 10th Grand Slam, 100 years since they secured their first in 1908.
Gavin Henson will be chasing his 10th successive Six Nations win after this week revealing he has never lost a championship match he has started.
It will be Wales' 100th international at the Millennium Stadium and it has been just over 100 days since Gatland took over what looked like a poisoned chalice as successor to Gareth Jenkins.
But the Kiwi has simply transformed Welsh rugby.
Never has a new coach made such an instant impact, taking a nation from World Cup flops to the brink of becoming Kings of Europe once more.
Not even fellow countryman Graham Henry, dubbed the Great Redeemer, who lost his opening match against Scotland, or Mike Ruddock, who delivered the 2005 Grand Slam success in his opening season, can emulate the speed of Gatland's Midas touch.
How can the Kiwi have turned around a team with virtually the same players so quickly after such a disastrous World Cup only last autumn?
Odds on a Gatland Grand Slam were 28-1 before the tournament started.
And you have to remember what he was walking into following the World Cup debacle where Wales had been unceremoniously dumped out of the group stages by Fiji on that dark September Saturday.
The following morning Jenkins was sacked in a French car park by the Welsh Rugby Union's chief executive Roger Lewis and chairman David Pickering, who were accused of not allowing the former Wales coach of leaving his post with dignity.
But their decisiveness in terminating the old regime and travelling to the southern hemisphere where they eventually snared Gatland from Waikato must now be applauded.
Because since his starting date on December 1, the new incumbent has not put a foot wrong, from snapping up his old Wasps sidekick Shaun Edwards under the nose of England, recruiting Rob Howley into his coaching team, making the inspirational Ryan Jones as captain, persuading Martyn Williams to come out of international retirement, and getting the best out of Henson.
Gatland has benefited from the return of three key players who featured little or not at all during the World Cup.
Captain Jones, who missed out on the showpiece tournament with a shoulder injury, centre Henson, who was deemed not fit in body and mind, and Jonathan Thomas, who also played a limited role during the campaign because of a broken bone in his hand, have all been revelations during this tournament.
But the rest of the squad have hardly differed and Gatland has sought to change the culture of Wales' top rugby professionals as he aimed to restore the respectability Wales had gained during their 2005 Grand Slam success.
The individual brilliance of Shane Williams and the second-half rout of Italy have provided the only playing links with that last triumph and there is a marked difference in style between Ruddock's side and the class of 2008.
Former England coach Dick Best said the Grand Slam triumph of three years ago was based on sand because of the free-flowing approach and the lack of a forward platform.
But the Gatland era is based on concrete with Edwards' new defensive system only conceding two tries in four matches.
Tales this week of a 6ft 7in lock Ian Gough hobbling on one leg to return to the defensive line because he was scared stiff of Edwards, is a perfect example of the fear and respect the players have for the former rugby league legend.
And rarely has a Welsh team played with such pragmatism as they displayed against England and Ireland in closing out victories at Twickenham and Croke Park, or exerted such dominance over their opposite pack as they did in Dublin last weekend.
Thomas and Jones have provided the Welsh pack with some much-needed ball-carriers and have worked off the hard work done by the front five epitomised by unsung heroes Gethin Jenkins and Gough.
This has allowed the four half-backs of Mike Phillips, Dwayne Peel, Stephen Jones and James Hook to control games at various points of the championship and unleash strike runners Williams and Lee Byrne at the appropriate time and place.
And Henson has returned like a lucky charm and provided a steely cutting edge in the Welsh midfield.
The results have been stunning with a second-half revival at Twickenham leading to the first win at HQ in 20 years, comfortable home victories against Scotland and Italy before that memorable Triple Crown winning joy, which was Wales' first victory in Dublin since 2000.
Wales now have an opportunity to complete a hat-trick of banished hoodoos in Cardiff tomorrow when they look for their first Five or Six Nations victory at home against France since 1996.
A win would leave them as undisputed European champions, while a defeat by less than 19 points would still allow them to celebrate Six Nations silverware.
With only Wales and Les Bleus in contention, it is a mouthwatering finale to what many have considered a mediocre tournament with England, Ireland and Scotland in various levels of transition and decline and France experimenting more than Henson's hair stylist.
But new French coach Marc Lievremont has named a strong side for the title clincher and Wales can't rely on tomorrow merely being a formality and a celebration in front of their own fans, with history pointing to five tournament defeats on home soil since 1996.
It must be remembered that France defeated New Zealand at the World Cup at tomorrow's venue and smashed Wales 34-7 in a pre-tournament game last August.
Lievremont might have been chopping and changing in the four previous matches but he has brought back some big guns for the Cardiff clash.
Les Bleus pack might have unusually struggled in this tournament, but if they can provide enough ball for the backs the new Welsh blitz defence system will have a busy evening.
Established back-row stars Julien Bonnaire and Thierry Dusautoir have returned, experienced half-backs Jean-Baptiste Elissadle and David Skrela are back, while the midfield juggernauts of Yannick Jauzion and Damien Traille have been reunited and will have to be stopped.
Add the fleet-footed Vincent Clerc into the equation, who will be hoping to eclipse Shane Williams in the battle tobe crowned the most jet-propelled wing in European rugby, and you have a potent mix of French flair and power who can score 19 points in the blink of an eye.
They can even afford to leave out strike-runners with the proven calibre of Cedric Heymans and Aurelien Rougerie.
But if Edwards' defensive system can counter these threats and Wales can stop France early on then supporters can look forward to a repeat of that golden day of March 19, 2005, when hundreds of thousands of fans flocked to the Welsh capital.
Whether a victory tomorrow would result in a day of that magnitude is debatable because the 2005 triumph represented a wait of almost three decades for a clean sweep.
But one thing is for sure. Given where we were just six months ago, a Welsh rugby Grand Slam modern day sequel would represent probably even more of a surprise than it did three years ago.
And while the style of play has not been the same as 2005, the momentum factor has been very similar since that opening victory against England.
There is a growing sense of destiny and a nation now expects. So it will be a brave man who bets against another clean sweep.
And that won't be me.
IF Wales beat France in their final game they will win the Grand Slam for the second time in four seasons.
FRANCE, with a points difference of +27, need to beat Wales, who are on +65, by 20 points or more in Cardiff to win the title.
IF France were to win by 19 points, the two teams would be level on points difference. The team with the most tries in the tournament would then claim overall victory.
CURRENTLY, Wales and France both have 11 tries each. If the sides still cannot be separated then the title will be shared.
Shane Williams v Vincent Cler
THE two most exciting runners and deadly finishers in the northern hemisphere will be in direct competition tomorrow.
The duo have proved that small men can still prosper in the increasingly physical rugby world by lighting up the tournament and are locked on five tries each as they bid to finish as the leading Six nations scorer.
James Hook v David Skrela
THE young Ospreys fly-half has been given the keys to number ten ahead of Stephen Jones for the Grand Slam decider and will bear the responsibility of leading the Welsh attack.
The inconsistent Skrela has been brought back into the French fold after only featuring against Ireland so far in the championship and has replaced Francois Trinh-Duc.
Mike Phillips v J-B Elissalde
PHILLIPS has been handed the Wales number nine role despite his disciplinary indiscretion against Ireland last week.
And France will have only to remember the Cardiff clash of two years ago to be reminded about the Wales scrum-half's capabilities. But his French rival proved a match-winner in Cardiff in 2004 and is one of the best tactical scrum-halves in world rugby.
Gethin Jenkins v Nicolas Mas
JENKINS has fought his way back into the Welsh side and has been one of the unsung heroes of the Triple Crown winning side.
With the French scrum surprisingly struggling during the Six Nations tournament, the Cardiff Blues loose-head will be looking to pressurise the French tight-head.
Ryan Jones v Julien Bonnaire
THE Welsh skipper has been a revelation during the tournament after recovering from injury and was a colossus in the English and Irish victories.
Bonnaire is one of the top lineout exponents in the world and is an athletic influence around the field.
L Byrne (Ospreys); M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), G Henson (Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); J Hook (Ospreys), M Phillips (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), H Bennett (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), AW Jones (Ospreys), J Thomas (Ospreys), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt). Reps: M Rees (Llanelli Scarlets), D Jones (Ospreys), I Evans (Ospreys), G Delve (Gloucester), D Peel (Llanelli Scarlets), S Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), S Parker (Ospreys).
THE MAN WITH THE MIDAS TOUCH Wales coach Warren Gatland.; HE'S A PERFECT 10? Gavin Henson has a remarkable Six Nations record for Wales.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Mar 14, 2008|
|Previous Article:||Rugby Union: 'Wales ready to reassess kicking tactics' - Jenks.|
|Next Article:||Rugby Union: Wales on course to rewrite their history books; Six Nations Championship Showdown RBS 6 Nations.|