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Grand Slam! The Year of the Dragon By Paul Rees

Release date: 18th April, 2005
Publisher: Mainstream Publishing

List Price: £15.99
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Grand Slam!
The Year of the Dragon
By Paul Rees price: £11.19 (saving 30% on rrp)

Immediately before the Six Nations clash between England and France at Twickenham, I was having a drink at the ground with a few other journalists when Ieuan Evans walked into the room. Even hard nosed scribes know when they're in the presence of sporting greats and Evans silenced everyone, holding court as he analysed probable tactics ahead of the forthcoming game, clearly beaming following Wales' two consecutive victories. "Of course," he concluded jokingly, "today's match is probably irrelevant anyway, given the way Wales are playing."

The comment stuck and, after watching a poor England losing to an even poorer France, I examined the remaining fixtures more closely, in the way I last remember doing as a small boy: so if they beat them and we win there and they lose over there√ĖIt was a futile exercise as Wales won every game.

"The key to the Grand Slam," writes Paul Rees in his inspirational tale of Wales' Six Nations championship title, "was the victory over England. The only time Wales showed appreciable signs of nerves during the tournament was during the second half of that match."

In fact, although Wales led 8-3 at half time, they were jittery and England finished the first half on top; Hodgson's missed kick from 30 metres in stoppage time (the only one he missed in Cardiff) proved crucial.

But this was a game won by Wales, not lost by England. Drawing on the relentless passion of the marvellously vociferous crowd at the Millennium Stadium and driven on by a stunning tenth-minute try, Wales prevailed. There were other key moments too, not least of which was Gavin Henson's unceremonious dumpings of England's debutant centre, Matthew Tait. Incidents like this infused the Welsh team with belief and when, in their second game, they cantered to a 38-8 victory in Italy, a potential hiccup if ever there was one, it became evident that they were the dark horses, the side no-one would fancy playing.

So often in the wake of memorable sporting success, books and CDs are rushed out by publishers anxious to cash in, but Paul Rees has produced a book which reads as though it was years in the making. This is not merely a diary but a well-researched history of recent Welsh rugby. Rees pulls few punches as he meanders through the lean years following 1979 when Welsh rugby fell into what appeared to be terminal decline.

The author points out that we should not underestimate the impact of professionalism on the game. Although some administrators and club owners had visions of rugby becoming the new football, awash with money and resplendent with stars, the fact is that the WRU had to take some tough, often unpopular decisions as they endeavoured to establish an effective club system that would feed high calibre players towards the international stage. Once there, it was vital they had the best coaches and, as the tinkering continued, they eventually happened upon Graham Henry, the man who finally managed to turn things around.

By the time Wales faced the All Blacks (now under Steve Hansen) in that stirring World Cup tie in 2003, it was evident that the corner was successfully being turned. Hansen managed to form a nucleus of players which Mike Ruddock honed into a magnificent winning machine, playing thrilling rugby as it swept by all before it. By the time Welsh rugby fans arrive at the end of the book, they'll be quietly confident, in much the same way as Ieuan Evans was at Twickenham in February, barely able to wait for the start of the next international season.

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