Very rarely in Welsh rugby is the question uttered ‘where did things go so right?’ Prior to arriving in New Zealand many pundits and supporters alike were dubious over whether a young Welsh team were even capable of making it out of the pool stages. But after a narrow opening defeat to the Springboks and holding off a strong Samoan challenge, they have gone from strength to strength. The rugby world really stood up and took notice after Saturday’s stunning performance against a highly tipped Ireland side in Wellington. While it may make a very welcome change from the normal inquests and general sense of despair, it does however beg the question; just how have Wales found themselves heading into a World Cup semi-final as narrow favourites?
Unlike his predecessors as Welsh coach, Warren Gatland has been given the luxury of a near four-year period, in which to prepare for a World Cup. Consequently the Kiwi has been able to make decisions with the tournament in his homeland in mind. After initial success at the beginning of his tenure in charge, Gatland has been able to endure some difficult patches of form, that would have seen most national team heads axed, and some players discarded. Arguably what we are seeing is the result of his attempts to mould a Welsh team capable of living with the best in World rugby, and peak just at the right time.
An intense summer of training, including a week spent in the savage facilities of Spala, in Poland has arguably made Wales the fittest team in the tournament. Through going to extremes such as cryogenic chamber therapy, they are really reaping the rewards, which has certainly been evident in the final quarter of matches.
Wales’s superior fitness levels have also allowed them to rack up some incredible tackle counts. On Saturday against Ireland, they made a total of a 150 tackles, a third more than their opponents and an astronomical number for a side to make in test rugby and still come out victorious. This has backed up Shaun Edwards defensive plans, such as the leg tackling that saw them keep the threat posed by some of Ireland’s key performers at bay, having also managed to nil Fiji the week before, which is no mean feat.
On and off the pitch Welsh players have conducted themselves in the utmost professional fashion in New Zealand. It says a lot about this current crop of players that they have upheld a self-imposed drinking ban for the duration of the tournament, a far cry from the bad old days of motorway golf buggy trips and scraps outside of fast food outlets. Further more Wales have developed a close-knit squad of players who do not only want to not let themselves down, but each other. Newly installed captain Sam Warburton has led by example with his both his world-class performances and his approach to the supporters and media alike.
The team that started against Ireland had an average age of 25, with the 30-man squad contained eight players either 22-years-old or younger. While the mantra if you are old enough you are good enough certainly rings true, the injection of youth has brought with it a freshness and a fearlessness that has aided Wales’s World Cup charge. The likes of George North and Toby Faletau do not bare the scares of past disappointments, and simply don’t know their limits.
In New Zealand, Wales have has got selection right when it has really counted. Warren Gatland has picked on form, when it may have been easier to fall back on more established names. This was shown in his brave decision to move Leigh Halfpenny to full back against Ireland, with both James Hook and Lee Byrne waiting in the wings. Rhys Priestland is another example. Almost completely unheralded before his elevation to the Welsh starting line-up, due to Stephen Jones injuring himself in the warm-up, before an August game against England, the Scarlets’ rookie produced another sterling display in Wellington.
Overall, so while Wales may very well not end up taking the Webb Ellis Cup back to Cardiff, they have certainly set down a marker for other teams to follow in the future, when it comes to the getting the ingredients right for mounting a serious challenge in international rugby’s showpiece event.
by Paul French