Familiarity key to Welsh Grand Slam success

(IRB.COM) Wednesday 23 May 2012
 Familiarity key to Welsh Grand Slam success
Sam Warburton in action against France at JWC 2008 - Photo: Huw Evans

Wales coach Warren Gatland has never been afraid to put his faith in youth and eight members of his Six Nations Grand Slam winning team had followed the IRB Junior World Championship pathway to the Test arena.

Many of these graduates played significant roles in the campaign, Sam Warburton as captain, Jonathan Davies with his try brace against Ireland, Leigh Halfpenny’s match-winning kick in Dublin and try-saving tackle on David Strettle, and a Triple Crown securing try by Scott Williams at Twickenham.

These players are now at home on the international stage and established members of a close-knit Wales camp capable of digging deep to get through difficult situations, making it easy to forget that the bonds between them have developed over a long time.

This was a fact that Warburton reiterated numerous times during the Grand Slam winning campaign, reminding media and fans that while a number of the team were still only 24 or younger, a lot of them had actually been playing rugby together for as many as eight years already.

“I have come through from the age groups with people like Jon Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Webb, and Justin Tipuric,” explained Warburton. “We have got nine boys (from our JWC 2008 team) capped and I have known them all, most of them for at least four years already.

“It is quite unusual to be at the age we are now and have reasonably quite long relationships in rugby terms with players in the squad.

Coming through the ranks

“Guys like Leigh and Ryan Bevington, I’ve known them since I was 15 years old. I have played with them for 16s, 18s, 19s and 20s and senior level or club so I have had seven or eight seasons with some of them already.

“I know that is not all professional level rugby, but you do have that friendship which does help when you are in a team environment, and I think the squad we have got now we all get on pretty well together and that definitely does help.”

A sentiment echoed by Davies and Halfpenny, who both played for Wales Under 20 under Warburton’s captaincy in the inaugural Junior World Championship on home soil in 2008, and are now among the first names down on the teamsheet for Warren Gatland.

“There are a lot of players here now who have come through age grade rugby,” explained Halfpenny, who made his Welsh Test debut only five months after JWC 2008. “We spent a lot of time together at age grade, in the Under 20s World Cup. We became great friends and learned a lot about each other on and off the pitch and I think that is the togetherness you are seeing now.”

Davies added: “We know each other quite well, so it is almost like we have come through the ranks together and now we are here at the top. Once you get familiar and the boys are comfortable with each other it creates a nice atmosphere around the squad.”

With a Grand Slam success, a Rugby World Cup experience and – in Halfpenny’s case – a British & Irish Lions tour to their names already, the next big challenge for this trio of JWC graduates is a three-Test tour to Australia next month.

Their focus may be on avenging two losses to Australia last year, in the RWC 2011 Bronze Final and a match in Cardiff in December, but they have not forgotten the role the Junior World Championship played in their developments, or the memories they shared together.

VIDEO: Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Davies relive their JWC memories

Warburton remembers “a 40-yard gallop” for a try against Italy, while Davies threw the long pass to Halfpenny to score the winning try in the dying seconds against France to secure Wales a semi final date with New Zealand, a memory which brings an instant smile to their faces even now.

“France was just an unbelievable game to be part of,” recalled Halfpenny. “It looked as though we were out of the game and we managed to grab a try right at the end, then they kicked off to us and we just had to go the length of the field to score again and thankfully we did.

“It was a great pass by Jon, I remember it being right in the bread basket and all I was concentrating on was catching it at first, I managed to do that and then just seeing the line and seeing a guy coming across, I just dived under him and managed to get over.

“It was mental celebrations afterwards, it was just crazy. You could see all the fans going wild and it was just a really proud moment, something that I will always remember.”

Davies has a more relaxed memory of the big play at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea. “I think I chucked it with my eyes closed to be honest, I wasn’t really looking and Leigh finished it off tremendously well. It was a great finish by him and then it was just an ecstasy feeling really, the boys were all jumping around.

“It was a pretty big match, it was a pretty physical affair like any normal match against the French team and we just about pipped them at the end there. It was a great comeback by the boys, something I think we thrived on at the end, that pressure and never say die attitude really.”

The Welsh title dreams died with a 31-6 loss to eventual champions New Zealand and a semi final place has been a distant dream in recent years, but the class of 2012 will hope to draw inspiration from Warburton, Halfpenny, Davies and co when they travel to South Africa later this month.