(Repeats fixing typo in eighth para)
* Wales beat Ireland 25-7 to claim title
* Coach Gatland becomes first triple Grand Slam-winner
* Tournament won by robust Welsh defence
By Lawrence White
CARDIFF, March 16 (Reuters) - Wales built their Six Nations Grand Slam on physicality, fitness and national pride, coach Warren Gatland said on Saturday after his side hammered Ireland 25-7 to send the Principality Stadium into raptures.
Gatland, who became the first coach to claim three clean sweeps of victories in Europe’s top rugby tournament, had predicted his team could win the Six Nations if they overcame France in Paris in their opening game.
“It’s nice when predictions come true, I’ve got to have that belief and confidence in ourselves,” he said. “It was a great performance today, the boys thoroughly deserve it, it’s about them and their families, creating history and winning Grand Slams are things that no one can take away from you.”
The tournament turned on a stand-to second-half performance against England on Feb. 23, when Wales began to overturn a first-half deficit with a 30-phase attack that became emblematic of their approach to the tournament: first nullify the opponent, then win.
Wales on that day defused England’s previously lethally accurate tactical kicking game, just as in Cardiff on Saturday they deprived Ireland of the line-out drive that had powered them through previous rounds.
“Our physicality nullified what have been a lot of Ireland’s strengths in terms of line-outs and runners off nine,” Gatland said.
Captain Alun Wyn Jones, on the occasion of his 125th cap, praised the way his team mates shrugged off lingering concerns about the financial health of the Welsh regional sides.
“It’s very simple, the message before the game was be proud, represent where you’re from, and if you work hard enough you’ll win,” he said.
Gatland, who is set to step down after the World Cup in Japan later this year, laughed when reporters asked about television cameras appearing to pick out tears on his usually stoic face as Wales collected the trophy.
“I think it was the rain. There’s no doubt I was reasonably emotional afterwards, the great thing about winning the last game of campaigns is you get to enjoy the next couple of months,” he said.
Wales finish top of the table with 23 points, thanks to the rule that grants Grand Slam winners three bonus points.
Those proved useful, since Wales’s focus on defence during the tournament meant they did not register a single bonus point and scored the same number of tries - nine - as bottom-placed Italy.
Wales’s gladiator captain Jones reserved his final post-match words for his opposite number Rory Best, who was playing in his last Six Nations and whom Jones approached on the pitch after the final whistle.
“I said surely you’ve got another year in you, he laughed it off but didn’t say no. I thanked him for the battle,” Jones said.
Reporting By Lawrence White; editing by Tony Lawrence