Wales's victory over France on the final day of the 2008 RBS Six Nations provided them with a perfect 10 of Grand Slams, roughly averaging one every ten years since the National team became the first to achieve a Grand Slam with a clean sweep of their opposition in 1908. 100 years and one day had passed since the 1908 feat and Wales's 2008 victory saw them equal France's record of two Grand Slams since the start of the Six Nations Championship in the 1999-2000 season.
The 2008 Slam was achieved against the backdrops of new beginnings. With new Head Coach Warren Gatland in charge and Ryan Jones promoted through the ranks to skipper, Wales went into the 2008 RBS Six Nations fresh with endeavour. With Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards also on board as Assistant Coaches Wales focussed on playing to their strengths and maintaining a tight defence; leaking as few tries as possible and putting game-breakers into positions to do damage as Shane Williams enjoyed a season in the sun crossing the try-line.
Part one of the Grand Slam was achieved by beating England at Twickenham 19-26. The perfect beginning to the tournament was no mean feat, the victory was ground out against the beaten Rugby World Cup finalists in style during a second half fightback after they had run rampant against Wales in the first half. When James Hook converted Mike Phillips's touchdown on seventy minutes Wales ended the twenty year hoodoo of not winning a match at the venue that England fans call 'HQ' since 1988.
Wales arrived in London with the legacy of Adrian Hadley's two-try salvo in 1988 casting a shadow over them. 1999 at Wembley aside, which counted as a home game, Gatland's eight predecessors including Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and the 2005 Grand Slam winning Coach Mike Ruddock had all failed to achieve a victory over England on English soil, but the Kiwi masterminded it at his first attempt as Wales produced a magnificent performance full of grit and determination.
Wales trailed 19-6 five minutes into the second half but rose to the occasion and breathed fire in the final half hour of the match. They got off to the worst possible start when centre Sonny Parker, under extreme pressure from Leicester Tigers' rampaging flanker Lewis Moody, knocked on inside 12 seconds from Wilkinson's kick off. The Newcastle fly half opened the scoring with a 40 metre penalty to hand England a dream start. Wales responded within a minute and levelled the scores when Hook showed no early signs of nerves to fire over a penalty. Wilkinson added a further penalty and drop-goal to edge ahead with Lesley Vainikolo entering the field of play for David Strettle who had pulled up injured.
Wales struggled to impose themselves upfront in the loose as England's front five dominated, and the visitors' nerves crept in at the end of the opening quarter as Hook wastefully kicked the ball straight into touch. In the following phase Vainikolo's presence created panic to create the first try of the match on 22 minutes. England's deliberate cross-kick tactic was in action again as Wilkinson's kick deep into Wales's 22 found the Gloucester wing, who leapt over Jones and his deft inside pass found the on-rushing Toby Flood to score under the posts. Wilkinson duly converted the extras.
Wales hit back and a mazy run by the pint-sized Shane Williams was edged out by a stubborn English defence. Hook reduced the arrears to ten points with his second penalty from long-range after Andrew Sheridan impeded the Welsh line-out. Three minutes before the interval, Sackey would have doubled their try count only for the intervention of Huw Bennett. South African referee Craig Joubert, in charge of his first match at Twickenham, went upstairs to the Television Match Official and Ireland's Simon McDowell deemed the Ospreys hooker and Hook had done enough to stop the Wasps wing.
On 45 minutes it looked as though any chances of Wales getting back into the match were fading away as Wilkinson kicked his third penalty. Hook responded and kept Wales in touch with his third successful penalty and after a short lull Wales suddenly came to life. Henson showed star potential on the hour mark with a brilliant burst past Wilkinson. Hook converted his fourth penalty two minutes after fullback Lee Byrne's chip and chase and with England offering nothing and showing no endeavour Wales were suddenly only seven points behind.
Wales were now in the ascendancy and scored the crucial try on 67 minutes when Hook beat three challenges to supply Byrne in the left corner. It was now time to believe as Hook fired home the conversion to tie the scores. Gatland had stoked up the fire in the build-up by saying he was unimpressed by England fullback Iain Balshaw when he went on a scouting mission at his club side Gloucester last weekend, and within a minute, his prediction came true as Phillips charged down Balshaw's kick and Gethin Jenkins fed Williams who passed to the Ospreys scrum half to beat Balshaw as Wales led for the first time in the match. Hook's splendid conversion from the touchline pushed the visitors into dreamland as Wales recorded their first win in London since 1988.
With the ghosts of Twickenham firmly laid to rest Wales turned their attention to Scotland, and thoughts of redressing the 21-9 Patterson inspired defeat they suffered at the hands of the thistle only twelve months earlier. Freshening the team somewhat, Gatland handed a first Wales start on the wing to young Cardiff Blue Jamie Roberts with Tom Shanklin replacing Sonny Parker at centre.
Scotland provided a stern test of forward power and with Chris Paterson showing yet again his lethal potency from the boot, Wales were never truly allowed to feel comfortable until the final whistle as Scotland made sure that they were always doing just enough to remain in touch with their hosts. In the end however, the 30-15 scoreline reflected the difference between the two sides with James Hook and Shane Williams with a brace ensuring the Scots were outscored 3-0 on try count.
Williams scored in the 13th and 67th minute and sandwiched James Hook's second half try. Llanelli Scarlet Stephen Jones took over from Hook in the second half and his controlled style and accurate goal kicking helped to seal victory at the Millennium Stadium. Wales peppered the visitors' line as Jones, Ian Evans and then Mike Phillips all surged for the opening score in the first few minutes but Scotland held firm. Despite Wales's early domination, it was the visitors who opened the scoring through Paterson's penalty on ten minutes. Wales hit back within two minutes as a sweeping move involving Gavin Henson, Hook and Lee Byrne found Williams who danced to score his 36th Test try.
Gatland's men were handed a further boost three minutes later when Scotland saw lock Nathan Hines yellow carded for a swinging arm on Byrne, but the hosts failed to capitalise on their numerical advantage as the visitors dug deep. Hook's penalty on 28 minutes increased their lead to seven points before Scotland suffered a big blow when skipper Jason White was replaced on the half hour by Allister Hogg. Paterson kept Scotland in touch with his second penalty as Wales led 10-6 at the interval and Paterson reduced the lead to just one point with a third penalty on 44 minutes. Wales rallied and Hook scored Wales's second try two minutes later when he collected Duncan Jones's pass and accelerated through a gaping hole before handing off the challenge of Ford.
Paterson nudged Scotland back into contention with his fourth penalty and brought Frank Hadden's side back to 17-15 with his fifth successful kick on 55 minutes. Gatland threw on experienced Llanelli Scarlets trio of Stephen Jones, Dwayne Peel and Matthew Rees for Hook, Phillips and Bennett and it worked a treat as Jones kicked Wales five points clear before Williams clinched the match with a brilliant solo try. He beat four Scottish challenges and then held off Ospreys teammate Nikki Walker in the left corner. Italian Television match official Carlo Damasco awarded the try although it appeared his foot was in touch. Jones added the conversion and his penalty with seven minutes left sealed an emphatic victory for the hosts with the two-try haul from Williams making him Wales's leading try-scorer in the Six Nations Championship.
Part three of the 2008 Grand Slam saw Williams notch another brace and stretch his Six Nations try-scoring record even further as Wales got into their stride against the Italians. Joe Calzaghe appeared on the Millennium Stadium pitch before the home crowd as he had done two years previously, but whilst that appearance had coincided with Italy's first away point in the Championship, this occasion saw Wales enjoy themselves with a 47-8 victory.
Wales were made to work hard in the first forty minutes but blew away the Italian challenge with 34 unanswered second-half points to clinch the record win. Italy came out with their attacking intentions clear to see but were nervy in the opening minutes and they soon fell behind when Stephen Jones slotted a three-pointer. It was the first of his 18 points with the boot. He was flawless all day, kicking three conversions and four penalties before leaving the field to rapturous applause with 13 minutes to play. James Hook was the popular replacement and he did his job in scoring the first of his two conversions within seconds of coming on.
It was the introduction of Mike Phillips that sparked Wales's second half performance. The feisty Osprey sliced the Italian defence to shreds with his first touch of the ball, so very nearly scoring a try from seventy metres out. On the wing, Williams showed his class. His pace, power, and overall work rate all contributing. He weighed in with a brace. His second try was a moment of sheer brilliance and will grace highlight reels in years to come. Warren Gatland's side now topped the RBS Six Nations table with three wins from three, and had Ireland next in the hunt for the Triple Crown. Lee Byrne was the man of the match, his two tries were matched by the magnificent Shane Williams, but Byrne's coolness under the high ball and pinpoint kicking display won him the accolade.
With both England and Scotland despatched in the first two rounds, the trip to Dublin, Wales's first to Croke Park, set-up the prospect of their first Triple Crown since the triumph of 2005. In the years since then, the title had been formalised as a trophy and Ireland were the current holders of that trophy having won it consecutively in the 2006 and 2007 RBS Six Nations Championships. The trip to the temporary home of Irish rugby was significant for it represented Wales's first real test since the England match, with many believing that the troubles of Ireland's early Championship form would be erased with a stern victory over the Dragons. Warren Gatland returned to face the team he once coached and Wales looked for a first victory in Dublin since 2000.
With so many narratives hanging over the match, part four of the Grand Slam was achieved with a magnificent all-round performance that saw Wales defeat Ireland 12-16 in front of a full crowd at Croke Park surviving two sin-binnings and a half-time deficit to prize the Triple Crown title and trophy from their hosts.
Wing Shane Williams scored the only try of the match after 50 minutes to put him on top of the all-time Wales try scoring list with 40 touchdowns alongside Gareth Thomas, also stretching his Welsh Six Nations record in the process. At fly half, the dependable Stephen Jones, despite missing his first kick of the afternoon weighed in with eight points, including a very difficult conversion of Williams's try, and used his boot in open play to peg Ireland back time and time again.
The home side opened the scoring with a fourth minute O'Gara penalty and may have lead 6-3 at the half time break, but it was Wales who had most of the go-forward in the first forty minutes. Marshalled by the ever dependable Martyn Williams and talismanic skipper Jones, Wales weathered early Irish offensives and slowly but surely began to take a stranglehold on the match. Both in possession and territory they were dominant but were unable to breach the home line until ten minutes into the second period. Inevitably, it was Williams who was the try-scorer. He fended off two Irish defenders to score in the right hand corner.
That score was telling. Wales had the breakthrough and despite conceding two penalties while Martyn Williams was in the bin for a professional foul, their control of the match remained unfaltering and replacement Hook confirmed the win with a 75th minute penalty.
Wales completed the Grand Slam with victory over France on Saturday 15th March 2008 at the Millennium Stadium, as with 2005, the Dragons were able to enjoy their victory in front of a home crowd in Cardiff as Ryan Jones added his name to the list of captains able to say they had led Wales to the accolade.
The mouth-watering championship decider between Wales and Les Bleus fell at 5pm on a Super Saturday of RBS Six Nations matches, the final day of action of one of the most open tournaments in years. France Coach Marc Lievremont named his strongest possible side after an extremely experimental selection policy for his side's earlier matches. Yet the fact remained that to deny Wales of the championship, and to gain their third successive title, France would have to defeat Wales by twenty points.
France though were not destined to gatecrash the Welsh party. Both sides agreed to a closed Millennium Stadium roof with the rain continuing to pour down in Cardiff, but that wasn't to dampen the mood as a sell-out crowd and an estimated quarter-of-a-million fans filled the Welsh capital for the historic day.
Lock Ian Gough led the Three Feathers out on his 50th cap to an electric atmosphere and flag waving home crowd, but in a nervy opening, hooker Huw Bennett missed with his first line-out and Lee Byrne's ambitious long-range drop goal inside two minutes fell short. Gatland had challenged James Hook to produce the game of his life for Wales and he duly produced with a moment of magic in the fifth minute. His superb flick pass released centre Tom Shanklin and the ball found its way to Mark Jones but he slipped at the vital moment.
Wales built on their early dominance and Hook opened the scoring with a routine penalty in the fifth minute; his opposite number David Skrela responded with an awful restart which went backwards into touch. Hook continued to set the tempo when he smashed France's Anthony Floch into touch and although he missed a second penalty, he charged down Skrela's hesitant kick seconds later.
Jean-Baptiste Elissalde reduced the deficit to three before Hook fired Wales 9-3 ahead with his third penalty on 21 minutes. France threatened briefly but the home side's defence stood firm, Martyn Williams symbolising Wales's desire with a crucial turnover on 32 minutes, but Elissalde cut the lead to three on the stroke of half time after Gavin Henson was given a yellow card for a high tackle on Fulgence Ouedraogo.
France levelled through Elissalde's third penalty but Wales had weathered the storm as Henson returned. Then the moment of magic arrived on the hour mark, courtesy of the wing wizard himself. Yannick Jauzion's dropped ball enabled the diminutive Shane Williams to hack the oval on to secure the decisive Welsh try and in doing so he broke Gareth Thomas's all-time Wales try-scoring record with his superb solo effort, now with 41 international tries to his name. Replacement Stephen Jones converted and Wales were in dreamland.
Fly half Jones then sent Wales ten points clear with a penalty before Dimitri Yachvili and Jones exchanged penalties in the final ten minutes before Martyn Williams burst through a gaping hole with four minutes remaining. Williams's late try sealed the win and ten points from the boot of Stephen Jones and nine from James Hook helped Wales record an amazing second slam in four seasons, which sparked wild celebrations in Cardiff.
|Next Match: RBS 6 Nations|
|RBS Six Nations 2017: Standings|