Old and new Wales face final hurdle

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Perhaps we should have expected Welsh revivalism in a year ending 05. The atmosphere in Cardiff on Saturday as Wales seek their first grand slam in 27 years will echo the mood - exultation plus a touch of apprehension - of prayer meetings held by the charismatic preacher Evan Roberts exactly a century ago as he led the last great religious revival.

If Roberts was the last blast of an old culture - rural, Welsh-speaking and God-fearing - against the new, urban, industrial, anglicised society that grew up along the southern coast and valleys, that same year of 1905 saw one of the greatest triumphs of the new society. The Wales rugby team reached the peak of their first golden age by beating the previously undefeated New Zealand All Blacks 3-0.

A century on, it is the country's rugby team that have been seeking a synthesis of old and new, merging the discipline and physicality of the modern professional game with the passion and creativity of the Welsh tradition. And after two consecutive New Zealand coaches - the "Great Redeemer" Graham Henry and Steve Hansen - they have found their synthesising figure in Mike Ruddock, who combines the organising and analytical skills of the modern coach with faith in traditional Welsh strengths - the intuitive, unscripted and unexpected.

Ruddock, previously with Swansea, Leinster, Ebbw Vale and Gwent Dragons, has maintained his record of improving the forwards everywhere he has coached. Wales's pack may be the least imposing in the RBS 6 Nations championship and has been minus the men - flanker Colin Charvis and prop Duncan Jones - who appeared least dispensable. But the forwards have battled, scrambled and competed to ensure that their backs have had enough possession to attack effectively. The backs, aided by a back row in which Martyn Williams, Charvis' replacement, have been outstanding, licensed to play with a freedom not seen from a Wales team in nearly two decades.

This is not reckless, throw-it-around-at-all-costs rugby, but the practical application of the philosophy expressed by the greatest of Welsh wingers, Gerald Davies, that "it is a game of calculated risks". It was epitomised by their opening try against Scotland scored by flanker Ryan Jones, which displayed an ability to improvise and strike from distance, in this case some 70 yards, unmatched elsewhere in Europe. And while Wales have no individual to match the genius of Ireland's captain Brian O'Driscoll, talents such as centres Gavin Henson and Tom Shanklin and wing Shane Williams give them a wider range of creative options.

Ruddock's image of bluff straightforwardness is no deception. But it does conceal a subtle intelligence. It took great diplomatic skill to persuade French clubs to release three of his squad for the autumn international against New Zealand. He has a deep awareness, strengthened by time elsewhere, of what rugby means to Wales. The handbook issued to each player contains not only advice on nutrition and preparation, but essays by Davies and historian Peter Stead on Wales and its rugby heritage.

He also knows that defeat last week by France does not make Saturday's opponents Ireland, who have won more Six Nations games than anyone since 2000 and can still take the championship, a poor team. Ireland are particularly well equipped to exploit potential Welsh vulnerability at the line-out and against teams that attack around the fringes with ball in hand. They also have the incomparable O'Driscoll.

A two-point lead and superior points difference (plus 62 to Ireland's plus 37 and France's plus nine) mean Wales can lose and still be champions. No title is to be disregarded but as their Welsh predecessors of 1994 and two recent England teams know, a championship won as grand-slam hopes are crushed feels tarnished and anti-climactic.

Recent history is not propitious. Ireland have not lost in Cardiff since 1983, while the last two Welsh teams to reach the final match still pursuing a grand slam were thwarted.

This team have echoes of 1988 and the last time Wales, sparked by brilliant half-backs Robert Jones and Jonathan Davies, played with such vibrant dash. France denied Wales a grand slam then 10-9, a bright young team then went off to be slaughtered on an ill-scheduled tour of New Zealand, the coaches were sacked and Wales went into inexorable decline.

Thanks to the handbook this team know their history, but that is not the same as being, like too many Welsh teams, oppressed by it. While Henry the "Great Redeemer" could not quite bring redemption, renewed, well-founded hope rests on Ruddock, the Great Synthesiser.

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