If Mike Ruddock’s excellent team beat Ireland at the Millennium Stadium this afternoon, they will ascend, unbeaten, to the top of the European game for the first time in 27 long and mostly bitter years.
At first glance, this should be well within the compass of a side who have rediscovered the best of themselves and their rugby tradition in the 12 months since Ruddock succeeded Steve Hansen as head coach. The Welsh are not the most optimistic rugby nation on earth – with good reason, given the torrents of points the Red Dragonhood have leaked to the All Blacks, the Springboks, the Wallabies and those white-shirted swine from the far side of the Severn over the last couple of decades – but today, with a Grand Slam in clear view, there is both a belief and an expectation that all bad things must come to an end. I used to walk with John Taylor, down Westgate Street and then into Quay Street to buy a new jockstrap at the sports shop. Everyone would give us a cheer, or shake our hand, and it really showed you what the game meant to the fans.As a team we were very much of the people, for the people, and this Welsh team has definitely connected with the fans That is one of the biggest achievements under Mike Ruddock The innate Welshness of the side has come to the fore. Whatever the outcome today they have achieved what many thought impossible – to restore pride and credibility to our national sport. There is one step to go and we all hope they can take it.Mervyn Davies won 38 caps for Wales and captained them to the Grand Slam in 1971.
Off to the cinema in the evening, a few sandwiches before going to bed and an easy night’s sleep.Saturday morning was always interesting, with friends and family milling around in the hotel foyer and, just as Michael Owen and co will be feeling today, we just couldn’t wait for the hours to pass until kick-off.The team talk was always inspirational, as was the walk from the Angel Hotel to the ground That was a part of the day I liked most of all. The Welsh back three could meet their match in Geordan Murphy, Girvan Demsey and Denis Hickie, while the battle between the pin-up boys in the middle, Brian O’Driscoll and Henson, could tip the scales one way or the other. A moment of magic from either could be all it needs to send one team home happy. It’s going to be that close.The last Welsh Grand Slam, in 1978, came in the amateur era, whereas the Class of ‘05 are fully professional That means their preparation will be totally different. We had a couple of training sessions in the week of the game and then turned up after work at the Angel Hotel on Friday night. Combine that with their wealth of experience, not to mention the fact they have a Triple Crown and championship to play for, and you’ve got a hell of a challenge.Behind the scrum it promises to be a real firecracker of a match.
He is young man who is definitely going places, and I just hope he can become the third Welsh No 8 to skipper a Grand Slam side after John Gwilliam in 1950 and 1952 and myself in 1971.If he and his team are to succeed then they will need to combine all the qualities they have displayed in their previous four games. This Irish side may be a little bit long in the tooth, but they have a lot of talent. A lot of people have asked me about young Michael Owen at No 8 I certainly wish I had had his handling skills. They have confidence in their ability to create space and beat players with individual skill. For Gerald Davies read Shane Williams, for Steve Fenwick think Gavin Henson, for Gareth Edwards imagine Dwayne Peel.Time has been kind to our reputations, probably because of Wales’ lack of success, but there is no reason why Gethin Jenkins can’t be as revered around the rugby world as Graham Price in the future or Brent Cockbain and Rob Sidoli can’t be as successful as Geoff Wheel and Allan Martin.