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This one's for Merv; IT WAS NAIL-BITING... BUT WALES' NEWEST RUGBY LEGENDS DELIVER FITTING TRIBUTE TO 'THE SWERVE'' WALES Vs FRANCE: MARCH 17th 2012 AT MILLENNIUM STADIUM.

Byline: ROB GRIFFITHS

ON a day when the rugby world mourned the sad passing of former Wales player Merv 'the swerve' Davies, it was perhaps only right that Warren Gatland's men paid the most fitting of tributes to the Welsh legend by clinching the Grand Slam.

And it is even more fitting that this Grand Slam is a third tournament whitewash in eight years, mirroring the achievements of the truly great side of the 1970s which Davies was such an integral part.

While a nation paid their respects to the captain of the 1976 Grand Slam winning team, Saturday's hard fought victory over France saw three more players etch their names into Welsh rugby folklore.

Ryan Jones, Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones joined an elite group of players following victory over France as Saturday's triumph ensured a third Grand Slam for the veterans of Gatland's current squad.

Those three have endured the vast indifferences in Welsh rugby over the last few years, from the highs of Grand Slams in 2005 and 2008 to the lows of the 2007 World Cup group stage exit at the hands of South Sea Islanders Fiji.

The three also played key roles in Wales' most recent World Cup adventure, helping Gatland's team finish in fourth place following a host of superb performances throughout the six-week tournament in New Zealand.

That it should have been better following a one-point defeat to France in a controversial semi-final in Auckland which saw skipper Sam Warburton sent off early in the contest is still a bug bear to so many in Wales.

While the players were at pains in the build-up to Saturday's contest to play down the idea of revenge, that it was France who were dispatched to ensure the Grand Slam and rightly be considered the leading team in Europe will have been all the more sweet for all concerned.

But victory in the Six Nations must now be the starting block for this young Welsh outfit.

Over the years there have been far too many false dawns, too many flash in the pan victories which have served only to heighten expectation before being brought back down to earth with the most humbling of failures.

This current side has the potential to kick on and spark a third 'golden era' of Welsh rugby and not only emulate the great sides of yesteryear, but go on to make the ultimate step and dominate on the world stage.

It's a big ask any way you look at it, but with youth on their side, and an abundance of talent and mental toughness, it really is a case of the sky being the limit for the class of 2012.

Wales have at times struggled to exert total dominance over their European rivals during the past eight weeks, but have shown enough in fleeting spells that they are on the verge of something special.

Wales have constantly looked capable of scoring tries and racking up points, all nine of their touchdowns ahead of their final encounter coming from a devastating backline.

But it is the defence that has seen them become such a force to be reckoned with. Heading into Saturday's clash Wales had conceded only three tries, all coming in their two opening games against Ireland and Scotland, while they had managed to keep England and Italy at bay.

And that they did so to France on Saturday is a stunning tribute to the work undertaken by defence coach Shaun Edwards, who has high standards that his players must live up to.

It may have been one try more conceded than the success of four years ago, but to go 240-minutes of international rugby against top opposition is no mean feat. Knowing a defeat and heavy victory for England in the later kick off over Ireland at Twickenham would hand Stuart Lancaster's side the unlikeliest of titles, while victory would see this generation take on legendary status, the stakes were high for all in red.

And in truth Wales never looked capable of losing this clash, albeit it must be said against a French side that had nothing more than pride at stake from the contest following last weekend's disappointing reverse in Paris.

Dimitri Yachvili may have put the visitors ahead with a 10th minute penalty, but that was to be the last time they were in front as Wales began to take a hold of proceedings.

Rhys Priestland and Leigh Halfpenny both saw first half penalties come back off the upright, before Alex Cuthbert, in his first season of international rugby, crossed for his third Welsh try 10-minutes later on the back off some excellent defensive work from the pack.

Alun-Wyn Jones stole possession at the break down and as the ball was recycled, Dan Lydiate, who again put in a superhuman shift, fed Priestland, who in turn laid the ball off for Cuthbert to race through some lacklustre French tackles to ghost under the posts, with Halfpenny adding the extras.

The full-back was on target with a penalty soon after as Wales went in 10-3 at the break.

France were out early at half time, seemingly with a flea in their ear from head coach Philippe Saint-Andre and it had the desired effect as Lionel Beauxis narrowed the advantage with a penalty as the visitors began to force their way in to the contest.

But any hope of a French comeback proved to be short lived as Halfpenny slotted two further penalties to cancel out one from Yachvili and ensure Wales remained at least a converted try ahead, while a superb tackle from Lydiate ensured Jean-Marcellin Buttin did not get in at the corner after Beauxis spotted the replacement standing alone on the wing on the back of a French penalty.

With time running out France continued to press, but it was more dogged defending from Wales - last gasp tackles from Lydiate and Jamie Roberts proving crucial - and as the clock ran dead Priestland had the simplest of jobs to kick for touch and ensure a new chapter in Welsh rugby had been started.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Dan Lydiate - does so much work which goes unnoticed, could rightly have a claim to be man of the tournament.

WALES 16 T: Cuthbert, C: Halfpenny, P: Halfpenny (3).

FRANCE 9 P: Yachvili (2), Beauxis.

WALES: Halfpenny, Cuthbert, Davies, Roberts, North, Priestland, Phillips (L Williams 63), Jenkins, Rees (Owens 63), A Jones, A-W Jones (Charteris 63), Evans, Lydiate, Warburton (R Jones 40), Faletau. Reps: James, Hook, S Williams.

FRANCE: Poitrenaud (Buttin 35), Fofana, Rougerie, Fritz, Palisson (Trinh-Duc 53), Beauxis (Parra 71), Yachvili, Poux (Debaty 44), Servat (Szarzewski 44), Attoub, Pape (Pierre 67), Maestri, Dusautoir, Bonnaire (Picamoles 59), Harinordoquy. REFEREE: Craig Joubert (SA) ATT: 74,178

CAPTION(S):

Wales great Merv 'The Swerve' Davies Wales try scorer Alex Cuthbert (left) celebrates the Grand Slam title with Adam Jones
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 20, 2012
Words:1147
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