March 21, 2012
Posted on 03/21/2012
A different kind of Grand Slam
Saturday’s victory against the French in Cardiff delivered Wales their third Grand Slam in seven years. Whilst the celebrations were identical to the Slams of 2005 and 2008, the build-up and the performance felt very different in 2012.
The victories in 05 and 08 came as a bit of a shock to the Welsh team, the coaching staff and the nation. But this one didn’t, Wales knew it was coming. I’m not for one moment suggesting that it didn’t come as a nice surprise, it did. But this was like someone throwing you a surprise party that you knew was being organised long before the event. And when that moment arrives, you have to pretend to be more shocked than you actually are.
The performance against France was markedly different from both the previous Slams. The campaigns of 05 and 08 were built on miracle offloads and white-knuckle come- backs. They relied on high risk, high-tempo rugby and players who were renowned for their flamboyant skill sets – Martyn Williams, Gavin Henson, Michael Owen and Shane Williams the pick of the bunch.
That’s not to say that the class of 2012 aren’t skilful. As a collective they are far more skilful than the previous generation. But Welsh rugby no longer relies on the ‘Welsh way’. Welsh rugby is now more akin to the ‘Southern Hemisphere way’. Victories are built on a solid and sustainable supply of territory and possession not flashes of brilliance alone. And so it proved against France.
The Welsh set piece was very strong indeed. Wales won 77.8% of their lineout ball against the French. This may seem below the requisite 80% -90% demanded by modern coaches, but in fact Wales won more lineout ball against France (14) than they did against any other team in the championship. The low completion percentage is a result of Wales having so many lineouts. France’s disappointing decision to open the roof meant that the surface at the Millennium Stadium was greasy and resulted in Rhys Priestland executing a wonderful kicking game. His array of low trajectory skidding kicks caused masses of problems for the French back three. Regularly pinned in their own 22, with the impressive Alex Cuthbert often in pursuit, the French had to clear their lines from very close to the touchline. The narrow clearance angles resulted in Wales being awarded 18 lineouts and with it, the opportunity to dominate possession – which they duly did with 65%.
Whilst Priestland’s refined kicking and effective lineout damaged France’s ability to control territory, the Welsh scrum damaged French pride. Wales won all five of their scrums, whilst France surprisingly lost two of theirs. It wasn’t just their inability to win their own ball that will concern Philippe Saint-André. France conceded numerous free kicks for early engagement and it spoke volumes of a front row under pressure and overly keen to make the hit. However, it is worth noting that some of France’s ‘early engage’ infringements were barely perceptible. Some of the offences could only be accurately recorded using equipment borrowed from NASA, or Craig Joubert’s eyes, apparently.
The entire Welsh forward effort was commendable, but a special mention must go to Dan Lydiate. He has become the most effective tackler in the world, bar none. But his ability to drop a ball carrier to the ground is notable for its speed, not necessarily its power – we’d probably need to borrow NASA’s equipment again such is the speed at which he puts players on the floor. But Lydiate tackling doesn’t just change games; it is changing our perception of modern tackling. The Welsh back-row are no longer looking for big impacts, and upper-body hits - getting a player on the floor is now the priority and rightly so. If you’re on the floor you are out of the game and at the mercy of Warburton, Faletau, Alun Wyn Jones and Jenkins.
As impressive as the forwards were against France, the Welsh backline was once again as threatening as it was dependable. Cuthbert’s try in the 20th minute has reinforced his reputation as one of the finest finishers in Europe. It is often said of a beaten defender who fails to make a tackle that he has been ‘stood up’. Poitrenaud should be so lucky, he was left kneeling down.
Jon Davies was superb once again. His simple, yet powerful lines of running have been very effective during the Six Nations. His developing offload game means that Welsh ball no longer dies in the middle of the field. His tactical kicking in the outside channel has become a useful weapon for Wales. But it is his ability to run out of the defensive line and make a perfectly timed ‘man on ball’ tackle that is so important to Wales. He’s like a ‘one man blitz’ and his desire to shut down overlaps saved Wales against France, as it has throughout the whole tournament.
But of all the statistical and scientific measures that we can adopt to judge the difference between this year’s Grand Slam and the previous titles, there is one key performance indicator that shouldn’t be ignored – my mother. She is a big fan of Welsh rugby and prone to bouts of histrionics when things get tight. But yesterday she remained calm for 80 minutes, and when Mrs Williams doesn’t think a Welsh win is in doubt, it means things are going to plan.
The Grand Slam of 2012 was undoubtedly different to those of 2005 and 2008. And Welsh supporters will be hoping that this point of difference continues beyond this year’s tournament. The highs of the previous Slams were followed by a season of mediocrity and fourth place finishes. It would be a shame if that happened to this group of players, but for the record, I doubt it will.