View from the valleys


Barry John, writing in the Wales on Sundaynewspaper, believes Ireland were worthy winners of the Grand Slam.

Irish deserve title, but we’ve been getting worse

FIRST things first. Congratulations to Ireland on a massive performance, a Grand Slam, Triple Crown and Six Nations title success. They thoroughly deserved it – not just over the course of the tournament but over the 80 minutes of tense rugby we witnessed at the Millennium Stadium yesterday.

Quite how Wales were 6-0 in the lead at half-time, when Ireland had dominated territory and possession, I’m still not sure.

But the five-minute period after the break, when Brian O’Driscoll and Tommy Bowe scored their tries, will be remembered in time as part of Irish sporting folklore.

O’Driscoll and his team came out of the blocks with fresh urgency and it proved to be compelling, match-winning rugby.

In the end, even the most ardent of Welsh supporters could not deny Ireland deserved their triumph and we don’t begrudge it to them.

Credit to Wales, though. They were thoroughly outplayed in most areas of the field but never gave up, and under those circumstances to still take the lead with five minutes remaining was a truly superb effort.

That underlines the spirit of this Welsh side. They do not know, or accept, when they are beaten. To be fair, nor do Ireland and Ronan O’Gara’s drop- goal at the end was the least they deserved.

If we are to analyse the tournament as a whole, though, Wales have been sub-standard and their final position of fourth place underlines that.

They started well against Scotland but then got progressively worse.

While it would be wrong to say the team has a stale look about it, we are not as inventive and exciting as we were in that opening game and that was the case again yesterday. Hence no tries from Wales.

Since Scotland, it has been a case of equal par at best, if not below.

Nothing sums that up better than a look at the likely make-up of the Lions squad for the tour to South Africa.

After the win over Scotland, possibly even the victory over England, you would have said there would be a bigger Welsh contingent of Lions than from any other country. Not any more.

An anticipated figure of 12-14 likely Welsh Lions has been whittled right down... and one who has lost his way is Shane Williams. He remains a real threat with ball in hand, but Ian McGeechan will have looked at the manner in which Ireland exposed Shane’s defensive frailties yesterday and decided that if the Irish can do that to the world player of the year, then the South Africans most certainly will.

It was obvious Tommy Bowe, who plays with Shane at the Ospreys, had done Ireland’s homework for them because Ronan O’Gara targeted Williams at every opportunity.

In the first half, Bowe was demanding O’Gara kick high to the flanks, knowing that at 6ft 4in tall, he had the measure against the smaller Shane.

When that didn’t quite work in terms of tries, O’Gara put delicate little chips in front of Shane and it was from one of those that Bowe raced on to the ball and scored.

Shane will still go on tour – he has to – but whether he is in the Test XV after this, I’m not sure. Bowe, on the other hand, may well have played himself into the Lions side for the first Test.

Lee Byrne is another whose Lions stock has fallen. Like Shane, he was seen as a shoo-in for the Test team, but he has begun to make mistakes and Wales’ style of play has not helped him.

Byrne went off injured directly as a result of one of those crash-bang passes which put a man in trouble.

He was exposed and when you’ve got a 6ft 2in opponent weighing 16-plus stone coming straight at you in those circumstances, you have no hope. None whatsoever.

Again, I expect Byrne to go on tour, but whether he starts the Tests is open to question.

I think Mike Phillips made strides yesterday, showing far more of the character and style we are accustomed to from him, and I believe Ian Gough also put up his hand for Lions selection. He was hugely impressive with his defensive work before going off in the second half.

But it’s the Irish who gained most yesterday in what amounted to a final trial for the Lions.

There has been talk of Ryan Jones leading those Lions, but Paul O’Connell was a colossus and really put his hand up for that job. His only rival for the role is O’Driscoll. How fitting the two of them should lift the Six Nations trophy aloft at the end of a pulsating match.

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