CARDIFF (Reuters) - The faith placed by the Welsh coaches and rugby public in their team as they followed last year’s grand slam with eight successive defeats was amply rewarded on Saturday when Wales lifted an unlikely Six Nations title.
Wales’ 30-3 victory over grand-slam chasing England was arguably their most impressive performance since they almost beat France with 14 men in the 2011 World Cup semi-finals. Interim coach Rob Howley said after Saturday’s success this year’s title was more impressive than last year’s clean sweep.
As is so often the case in sport, the winners are never as far ahead as they are portrayed and the losers are rarely as far off the pace.
The Welsh camp never tired of telling anyone who would listen that many of those defeats, particularly the four home and away at the hands of Australia, were by the narrowest of margins and could easily have been victories.
Even when they looked outclassed, as when falling 30-3 behind to Ireland after sleepwalking through the first half of their opening game of this year’s tournament in Cardiff, they fought back well and were only 30-22 adrift at full time.
That second-half fight back brought the confidence back and it built further through a hat-trick of away wins over France, Italy and Scotland to the point where they fully backed themselves to derail England’s chariot on a red-hot showdown at the Millennium Stadium.
Howley, taking charge while Warren Gatland concentrates on his British and Irish Lions duties, refused to panic and was able to select the same backline for every Six Nations match.
They rewarded him with a superb all-round showing on Saturday. Centres Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, who had struggled to impose themselves early in the tournament, were back to their destructive best, while scrumhalf Mike Phillips rose to the occasion as he so often has before.
Leigh Halfpenny is again favourite for the British and Irish Lions fullback berth, George North underlined his status as a top-notch winger while fellow flier Alex Cuthbert really came of age with his two tries, particularly the scintillating first, on Saturday.
Defensively the team were fantastic, not leaking a try after the 42nd minute of their opening game and, in truth, never looking likely to against England.
”We asked questions in the contact area, we were patient and composed,“ Howley told reporters. ”All those aspects of the game you learn as a player and a coaching team when you go to Australia and play three tests and lose by fine margins.
”Today we just needed to get distance between us and England and keep believing and keep playing and the players have been outstanding.
“When you look back, the weather had hugely influenced the quality of this championship so to have the roof closed with a dry ball, we wanted to play some rugby and you have to say their (England‘s) six-day turnaround had a huge influence on that 80 minutes.”
As Wales developed throughout the tournament, England went in the opposite direction. After starting so well with a four-try victory over Scotland, they ground out good wins over Ireland and France but were toothless against Italy and clueless against Wales, managing only one try in the four game.
The general direction is still forward - their home and away defeats to Wales are the only losses in two years of Six Nations games - but Stuart Lancaster and his coaching staff will have a lot to sift through when they analyse the wreckage of this match.
”For me it’s about perspective,“ Lancaster said. ”While it’s hugely disappointing to lose this game I’ve got to look back over the last four games and the New Zealand game and what we’ve been through as a team over the last 16 games.
”We need to learn from it and the fortunate thing is that we’ve got a long time to wait until we play again.
“Wales not long ago lost a few on the bounce but they held their nerve, and that’s what we’ll do.”
Editing by John Mehaffey