With two Pool matches down and two to go in the Rugby World Cup, our sports correspondent Richard Morgan looks at how Wales have performed so far, and what may lie ahead…
One win and one defeat, five match points, one foot in the quarter-finals. Numbers that would have pleased most Wales supporters before rugby’s biggest showpiece kicked off.
But have Warren Gatland’s men produced the sort of form that could see them repeat – or better – their best ever world cup finish, of third, in 1987?
Let’s look at the positives: in their first game, they lost by a solitary point to the defending Champions and had enough of the game to have deserved the victory.
Next, they overcome perhaps their most dangerous obstacle to qualifying, beating Samoa for the first time in three world cup attempts. In doing so, they showed undeniable character in overturning a half time deficit, though their display was littered with errors.
So, pros v cons, good performance v right result: is it merely a case of putting the two together?
“I’ve been pleased with the performance in both games so far really, in the defensive aspects”, says Wales Defence Coach Shaun Edwards.
“Against South Africa I gave the guys a target of 15 points, which I felt would have got us home.
“We were just two short of that, even though it was the least number of points we’ve conceded against South Africa for 41 years. Against the Samoans, I gave the guys a target of 12 to 13 points, and they obviously got under that.
“I asked them at half time; ‘Can we keep these guys to just a penalty in the second half?,’ and they obviously did better than that, they didn’t concede a point in the second half.”
Impressive stuff, especially considering the fact that Wales spent considerable periods of the game camped near their own try-line. Fortitude that Edwards puts down to long hard hours spent on a Polish training paddock in August.
“I really think the guys were glad we’d been to Poland twice. Because the fitness in the second half, on a very sticky muddy pitch, was very prevalent I thought. Defending in our own 22 in the last couple of minutes, the boys looked pretty much in control, in great shape, and they didn’t look tired.”
So, two ticks in the box as far as fitness and defence are concerned. The question now is whether Wales can eliminate the errors and improve their attacking play ahead of their remaining pool games and the quarter final that would ideally come next.
“Hopefully we’ll steadily improve throughout the competition. because that’s what you want to do. [former Wasps coach] Ian McGeechan told me before I came over that you can create and build momentum throughout a rugby world cup, and Ian McGeechan knows a bit about rugby.”
He certainly does. But even the Lions mastermind might struggle to predict how this tournament will turn out. All being well, Wales look set to play Ireland in a last eight showdown, with England or France looming after that. Could a path be opening up to a shoot-out with the All Blacks for the Webb Ellis Trophy? Maybe, says Edwards.
“It could be like a Six Nations on one side of the draw. And the winner of that competition will get a chance to play in the World Cup Final.”