New Welsh golden generation?
Sun, 18 Mar 2012 00:00
A youthful Wales team seized a third Grand Slam in eight seasons with a hard-fought 16-9 victory over France, delivering on the rich promise that first came to light at the World Cup.
And coach Warren Gatland vowed that the goal now would be to start turning over the world's top-ranked countries, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
"There was a relief at the fact that we hung on and won the game," said Gatland, speaking after adding the victory to previous successes over Ireland (23-21), Scotland (27-13), England (19-12) and Italy (24-3).
"Our big aim is to start being consistent and beating the southern hemisphere teams and I think we've got a young enough side that over the next few years we can hopefully do that."
Gatland's team have long threatened to spark a real rebirth of Welsh rugby, having pushed the touring SANZAR sides close on several occasions - and even notching up a couple of rare wins - in the November internationals.
But after reaching the World Cup semifinal, when Wales lost 9-8 to France, Gatland's troops finally started to deliver on a pragmatic gameplan inspired by some young, giant backs and marauding jackals at the breakdown.
Captained by 23-year-old flank Sam Warburton, the Welsh team has an experienced thread running through its front and second rows, and in 29-year-old scrum-half Mike Phillips.
But the backrow is fired by Toby Faletau, 21, and Dan Lydiate, 24. Rhys Priestland masterminds things from flyhalf with a maturity belying his 25 years, and wings Alex Cuthbert and George North, the latter still a teenager, flank yet more young players in centres Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, and fullback Leigh Halfpenny.
"In this campaign we've shown some great character, fantastic maturity, we've been down in games, we've learnt how to win and win ugly on a couple of occasions," said Gatland, now the front runner to take the British and Irish Lions to Australia next year.
"We've accepted some of the tags of being favourites, and that hasn't always sat well on our shoulders.
"For a young side, they've coped incredibly well and I'd like to think it will be good for us as a team over the next two or three years.
"Good sides defend desperately and they show character without the ball, and that's what this team is doing."
Attack coach Rob Howley, a former Wales captain and scrum-half, missed out on any Grand Slam glory as a player but was quick to dismiss any ideas that this Welsh team had achieved too much too early.
"Everything they've achieved, they've deserved," Howley said. "Sometimes all that hard work is not measurable.
"The measurable thing they've got is that they've won the Triple Crown and the Grand Slam and this side'll even get better over the next four years."
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