By Paul French
Let me put Wales’ semi-final date with destiny against France into context.
The last and only time the men in red made into the final four of the Rugby World Cup, only around 22,000 spectators were present to see them beaten by the All Blacks.
Over the next 24 years, while the tournament has grown to the point where three times that figure are likely to be in attendance at Eden Park, Welsh teams have struggled to make any sort of credible impression.
All the despair and disappointment of the last near quarter of a century has added to the sense of surreality that Welsh supporters must be feeling, as they find their team having defied the odds to be a eighty minutes from an unprecedented place in the final of rugby’s crown jewel.
Even by the normal up and down world of Welsh rugby, the last month has been unprecedented. After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against the Springboks, and holding out against a very impressive Samoan outfit, Wales have come on leaps and bounds to the point where they are actually slight favourites facing the basket case of world rugby – the French. An inexperienced team that has struggled for consistency and form up until landing in New Zealand, we were able to dispatch, with some confidence, a highly lauded Irish team in Wellington last Saturday, to be the only remaining home nation left in the tournament. What’s more, not only is it here in Wales that we are are struggling to contain our excitement, but the world of rugby has really begun to take notice.
If Graham Henry was the messiah, then goodness knows what Warren Gatland is to the Welsh public. After having such a dramatic impact at the start of his reign as head coach, with a Grand Slam, the road to leading Wales to a World Cup semi-final has been rocky to say the least. But unlike every other Welsh coach since the inaugural tournament in Australia and New Zealand, he has been given the entire four-year period to prepare. Consequently the Kiwi has been able to develop his Welsh side with the aim of peaking for the competition.
The manner in which Gatland has identified the right players has been critical to allowing Wales to make the step up they have done. He has not picked on reputation alone. The side that beat Ireland in Wellington had an average age of just twenty-five, selected from a squad with eight players who were twenty-three or under. The likes of Toby Faletau and George North have very little domestic rugby behind them. While in the pressure cooker of the Welsh outside half berth, Rhys Priestland, albeit somewhat fortuitously, has been plunged in at the deep end of test rugby, and has been a revelation.
Sam Warburton’s experience of captaincy in professional rugby has been negligible, up until the August warm-ups, and he has turned out to be a world-class leader. Arguably such inexperience has aided Wales, bringing with it fearlessness and belief, in spades.
The new Welsh mindset has also stemmed from thorough preparation off the pitch. A trip to the cryotherapy chambers in the Polish town of Spala, and a self imposed drinking ban, have contributed to making Wales arguably the fittest team in the tournament. Ireland were quite simply worn down in the final twenty-minutes, with even Adam Jones, a player much criticised for his lack of stamina, finishing strongly, in a game the man he was scrummaging against, Cian Healy, will wish to forget.
Then there is the attention to detail of the game plans. In particular defence coach Shaun Edwards has been masterful. The Welsh defence nullified the much-vaunted Irish back-row.
Losing in the semi-final stage is never a pleasant experience, in any sport or level, and despite surpassing all expectations, Wales certainly won’t want to have to take part in the massive anti-climax that is the third place play off. France represents a dangerous hurdle. A side full of world-class players has been below par in New Zealand, losing to Tonga and only just doing enough to squeeze past an even more woeful English outfit. Marc Lièvremont’s team, when on song, are more than capable of beating most teams in world rugby.
Wales know all too well from recent Six Nations encounters the ability les Bleus possess. But the momentum that Wales have cannot be underestimated. While history may be against the fifteen Welshmen that take to the field on Saturday morning in Auckland, if ever there was a team capable of writing some of their own, then it is this one.
- Paul French is a rugby blogger based in Cardiff – you can read his sporting insights at Flyhalffactory.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter @PaulLeoFrench