Saturday, February 26, 2005


It's amazing how sporting games can be decided by factors almost completely irrelevant to the actual talent level of a side. Look at Arsenal this season, for example. At the start of the year they were comfortably continuing their startling unbeaten run. Now they have lost their self belief (particularly having been given a thorough turning over by Manchester United twice) and look a pale shadow of the side once so intimidating - despite there being practically no turnover in personnel. Simon Barnes in yesterday's Times suggests Chelsea are about to go the same way - although I suspect he is jumping the gun here in a desperate need to fill space. Chelsea are a well-drilled outfit and I suspect it will take more than a defeat at the hands of one of the strongest teams in Europe to lose their touch (although we will see tomorrow how accurate that assessment is).

The importance of self-belief, however, is playing itself out incredibly in the Six Nations rugby championship at the moment. Wales, well known in the past ten years for churning out a series of impressively useless teams, have suddenly started playing well and have won three games on the trot - two of them against England and France who, whilst not as strong as they were two years ago are on paper at least as strong as Wales, and probably stronger. Indeed, watching the last 20 minutes of the France-Wales match today, it struck me that France were playing considerably the better rugby.

Yet Wales still won. It wasn't the same against England - they were easily the better side but a whole series of wrong options left them needing a crucial penalty late in the game to secure the win. In many ways, I think securing a win over England in such a manner was probably a defining moment for this Welsh team; the reason they won this afternoon was because their defence in the last few minutes was highly strong - they evidently believed they could win (whereas the French, who had struggled to an undeserved victory over England last weekend, didn't).

Mide Ruddock must have put a lot of work in to get the team spirit right. Wales do have talented players, and some have put in huge performances, most notably Martyn Williams (who must now be looking at a Lions tour place). But the confidence that they will have gained from crossing the hump and beating the two strongest teams in the tournament will pay dividends, probably, for years to come.

What surprised me most about this was that for all the media talking up Wales's rugby, they hadn't been playing that well before the tournament. Yes, they have some good players - but their results flattered to deceive, often making "comebacks" when the game, in reality, had been well out of reach. Normally, the belief that you can beat the hardest opponents comes only following many years of gradually getting nearer the standard.

Now, England and France are at a low ebb (England in particular, through missing Jonny Wilkinson - if he had been playing, the last three matches would have been victories and not defeats). So Wales have probably taken their chance at the best time they could. Good luck to them. Although I hope that ultimately they collapse, it will be fascinating to see the results of this increased self-belief. Especially if Ireland-Wales ends up being a winner-takes-Grand Slam clash!