How Wales got it right

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

22 thoughts on “How Wales got it right

  1. Gatland has picked on form not reputation – fair play to him and good luck to Wales this weekend. (From an envious Englishman!)

  2. Gatland’s team selections have been spot on. The team look like they are enjoying themselves, and want to win. Good luck Wales, got to beat those Froggies!
    (Another envious Englishman)

  3. hope wales play the same game plan as against ireland get at parra early run the big runners at him and cut off the pass to the outside! he isn’t the biggest in the world and very unproven at ten! hope they make the final from a depressed Irish man

  4. Make that three envious Englishmen

    What really stands out for me as being different with Wales is their fitness levels. It was evident during the warm-up games and more so now

    So many times in the past you would watch Wales come out all guns blazing and looking like a world-conquering team only for them to start to wilt after half and hour

    At one point, if I remember correctly, both of the Hair Bear Bunch were only able to play a half each.

    Now Adam Jones still looks sprightly after a full 80 mins (BTW – what has happened to Duncan Jones?)

    It makes such a difference to their game – especially with the sort of high-tempo, counter-attacking tactics they have been playing

    1. “What has happened to Duncan Jones…?”

      Er – Gethin Jenkins (The greatest loose head in the game) happened to Duncan Jones.

      Plus he has had a few injuries and still plays at the Ospreys.

  5. envious englishmen 4

    my endearing memory of wales v ireland was watching jamie roberts running at full speed and literally blasting Donnach O’Callaghan out the way.

    DOC wasnt all there after that !

    If only england had used Tuilagi against Parra ONCE!

    good luck wales, im grinding my teeth saying it…..

  6. Fitness is a massive component of where we are now. It’s not just the ability to keep getting around the park, it’s the ability to still think straight in that last 15 mins, to still make passes go to hand.

    Gatland’s selection is rightly commended. Although Priestland only really got his chance due to injury, Gatland saw what happened in front of him and changed his future plans. This reminds me of WC 2003 when Hansen picked a 2nd string side to play the group game against NZ, a side that ran NZ close so he stuck with them for the Eng QF and they ran Eng close (damn you Mike Catt! :-). Before that players like Shane and Gareth Thomas had been relegated to fringe status. That side went on to be the core of the 2005 slam winners. Regardless of what happens in this WC (I’m only saying that cos I am too nervous to consider it) we would seem to have a good team going forward IF we can make Adam impervious to injury, clone him, or finally find a decent replacement for him.

    1. Not really. I guess closest to Adam is Craig Mitchell, who has left the O’s to get out from Adam’s shadow, but at the moment Mitchell can’t hold a candle to Adam let alone hold up the front row. The Blues’ Yapp is trying to switch to tighthead, no doubt partly because he doesn’t get a look in at loose ahead of Gethin and James, but Yapp not’s the answer. He never came good on his early promise. Gary Powell was alright in a pinch but has had to retire. There seems to be a big age gap, we’ve got some promising guys in their early 20s but props seem to need to reach 30ish before they hit their prime, especially tightheads. I think the academy system doesn’t help. Adam would have grown up sparring with nasty buggers from Ponty (both Pool and Pridd), whereas todays young props grow up with more knowledge of the scrum machine.

  7. One of the NZ players after last Autumns game said that Wales usually gave them a good game where it was an even game for 60 mins or so before falling away .

    I thik Gatland took that quote very seriously and upped the fitness stakes as priority number one .

    The coaches deserve credit both in defence and attack (they are slagged off enough when things go wrong .The form of both the youngsters and established stars and those who have been criticised in the past Bennett and Charteris for instance has been a revelation too.

    However there has been a certain element of serendipity about it all . There was certainly no planning for the injury to S. Jones which led to Priestland making his mark , Warburton’s captaincy came about because of injury and finally who can forget that Henson was on the verge of geting his plane ticket if he hadn’t had a knock too and he hardly encapsulated this teams current “core values ”

    Anyway if fortune favours you you have to grasp it and I’m starting to think the Rugby gods are smiling upon us . Still crossing everything for the weekend though.

  8. ps can we stop kissing wales’ ass ? at the moment they are semi finalists, thats it.
    France swept ireland aside with apparent ease so lets see.

    if they beat Frogs, they can win the tourno i think.

    1. I partly agree i.e. we’ve done nothing yet, so what’s all the fuss?

      On the other hand it is worth acknowledging that every man and his sister was laughing before the WC at the story that the WRU have the players on a 100K per man win bonus if they bring home the trophy. It’s the transition from absolute chumps to contenders that I think is being feted, I don’t think anyone is saying Wales are world beaters. Hopefully they will be in a fortnight but it’s only a hope at the moment.

      I also think Wales are getting coverage because of their style both on and off the field. The abstinence stories have been widely reported, Warburton is seen as a perfect “bring him home to your mother” role model while also being the kind of player any squad would want. On the field they are playing exciting and complete rugby – solid in defence, good with ball in hand. Of course they’re only getting this coverage because the other team I am not allowed to name (for fear of being told I’m obsessed with them) were reported as being the opposite. Now I don’t agree that the other team were the opposite (a few beers, or even a lot of beers, who cares … not playing exciting rugby but winning … again, who cares?) but the English media for some reason had it in for the Eng rugby team, and they’ve enjoyed being able to squirrel further digs against the Eng rugby team into what they see as compare/contrast articles they can write about Wales. Just yesterday a Mick Cleary article with a “Wales Young Guns” or something or other title only managed to get to paragraph 2 without some sort of “unlike England…” rant. So Wales are getting coverage for a) being good and b) not being England. I’m glad about a), I think b) shows how awful the mainstream media in this country are when it comes to rugby reporting. They’d have creamed themselves if Cips had been called up…

      1. Im most looking forward to the scrums. Jones and Gethin will be tested, does Geth still have it after injury? well find out!

        1. Yes, definitely. French scrum can be awesome. Without parity scrum on French ball then Lydiate/Warburton will not be able to peel off so quickly in defence, a key aspect of our game. I think we will manage to hold our own there, but it might reduce Gethin’s effectiveness in the loose. No dancing in tries from the halfway line in this game for him.

  9. brighty- i have been a Welshman living in London for over 20 years and have had the English contingent of our great game reminding me constantly about there superior record in the world cup etc…i have been waiting a long time to have some good natured banter with my English friends and last weekend was a joy where i won lots of bets and had a great day at there exspence ! so you be as bias as you want …it will be a long time before we can do it again …4years…………. yes as a nation we are pessimists and we are not used to success on this scale ,yes i do say success because for us to reach the semi finals is an achievement . The french do worry me as they always seem to play well against us and our recent record does not bode well BUT with the way we are playing with confidence and no fear of the youngsters anything is possible …as far as scrumming goes we were expected to be blown away by sa and Ireland,we were equal to both and if our front 5 can perform as they have been the rest will take care of itself ! gethin and Adam are two of the best props in world rugby and hopefully will carry us through ! gethin coming back to fitness has been one of main factors for our success.
    i think it will be a tense and absorbing semi as usual and anyone can win it on the day …wales by one score !

  10. Gatland will have a master plan for this game. Against Ireland, it was clear that he targeted 3 players in particular. O’Gara at 10. and Ferris, and O’Brien at 6. and 7. His target was to stop Ireland from playing and he did it brilliantly. France are more weary no doubt of Gatland’s tactical savvy, having seen what they did to stifle Ireland’s running game. Lievremont will be more prepared. Like Ireland, France named the exact same team they named against England to play Wales, but that’s just a disguise. The French will have a plan. There will be a battle of wills and minds in this game, not just rugby.

    1. Balon – I’m not quite so sure about Lievremont having a plan. I’d back Gatland in a game of chess between the managers and that’s why I think Wales will edge it. It seems to me that the clever coaches have excelled in this tournament and the rest have gone home. In a game of small margins, good coaching makes a difference.

      That’s not to say that the French can’t win, because they have the players to do it, but if they do, they will be blown away in the final by whoever they play as talented players can only get you so far.

  11. If Leivremont does have a masterplan then he may as well keep it to himself because nobody in the squad seems to want to listen to him. Im hoping for a Wales win but France with their tales up are a huge proposition…. Hear`s hoping for a good french calamity and Wales to win by 8

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