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Sport: Three cheers for the Welsh boy band with the XY factor

15 October 2011

5:00 PM

15 October 2011

5:00 PM

Well, we’re all Welsh now. Love the country, been there loads of times, adore the Millennium Stadium, in fact I’m about as Welsh as it’s possible to be without actually being Welsh. And I will be up at 9.00 a.m. on Saturday, cheering the wonderful Wales team on. On the other hand, my mum was half French so God knows what will happen.

This World Cup has been about as dazzling as you can get. To those harrumphing about the poor quality of the games against the tier two nations, just see what Tonga, conquerors of France, have to say about that. As for England, well let’s move swiftly on, though two surgically enhanced cheers for Danny Cipriani, who has had a superb World Cup. He hasn’t put a foot wrong after all.

Now we have the ideal last four in New Zealand, the most inventive teams, playing with the best spirit, and three of them coached by New Zealanders. But it’s the marvellous, youthful Welsh who seize the heart. Six of the starting side against Ireland last weekend were not born when Wales last reached a World Cup semi-final in June 1987 — Leigh Halfpenny, Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies, Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau, and that extraordinary man of Anglesey George North, only 19 but more than 17 stone and blessed with the explosive force of a charging rhino. How’s that for a boy band with the XY factor? Then throw in Jamie Roberts, who had a marvellous game, and Rhys Priestland, who was barely crawling at the 1987 World Cup, and you have eight of the starting XV aged 24 or under.

This feels like a team that was being built for the 2015 World Cup but is so good it burst open early, like a daffodil fooled into thinking spring starts in November.

But why are they so good? Terrific coaching obviously, and that very smart pre-tournament trip to the training camp in the forests of southern Poland, with its hard beds, basic food and no luxury. But much of the credit must go to their inspirational young captain, Sam Warburton, who was 23 a few days ago but appears to operate with a maturity that makes William Pitt the Younger look like William Brown of the Outlaws. He is Wales’s youngest ever World Cup skipper. He really only cemented his place with the senior team this year, and promptly saw off Martyn Williams for the No 7 jersey.

Now along with Pocock, Brussow and McCaw he is one of the pre eminent open side flankers in the world: arguably the most brutal position on the field. Warburton was at school with Gareth Bale and had a trial with Cardiff City. ‘I was in school with Gareth from year 7 to year 11,’ Warburton says. ‘My claim to fame is that he said if I wasn’t playing in defence the school wouldn’t win.’ Now it’s his country he has to take care of.  

Warburton operates with admirable modesty. It couldn’t have been easy taking over a team with powerful figures like Shane Williams, now 34, Mike Phillips, still awesome, and the new slimline (well 20-odd stones anyway) Adam Jones. ‘It was a bit daunting at first,’ said Warburton. ‘One of my main concerns was not to be patronising to some of the senior guys… but they have been so supportive.’


Much justified tut-tutting recently over some poisonous chanting directed at Spurs’ Emmanuel Adebayor by Arsenal fans at the recent derby game. But we shouldn’t overlook quite how funny the best chants can be. I have always liked this, to be aimed at visiting Liverpool fans: ‘Sign on, sign on, with a pen in your hand/ And you’ll nev-er get a job/You’ll neeev-er get a job…’

Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.

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