It’s been a long time since Welsh rugby had anything to cheer about. Our success is generally defined not by trophies won but by trophies spoiled, how many times we stopped the hated English from winning. Down in New Zealand it finally looks like we have a squad of players that could represent a golden generation set to eclipse the much-loved but inconsistent days of the Quinnells, Gibbs, Jenkins and Charvis, a period of time starkly referred to on Wikipedia as “The Barren Years.”
As you’d expect that doesn’t tell the full story. There were some lows and plenty of highs, Brains fuelled optimism every five, then six, nations and the hope that the players would deliver on the promise that occasionally manifested, like the ghost of rugby past. That team of local lads, the boys from the farms spearheaded by the kicking of a scrap merchant’s son, were just like us, sporting avatars of the Welsh people picked up and placed down on the pitch to represent all of us. When the defeats inevitably came they hurt but the wins were like no other, celebrated still to this day. And yet it was nothing compared to this.
After giving Ireland a day of chasing shadows out in the New Zealand sun we are one game away from the final of the World Cup and there is no doubt that we are going all the way to set up a showdown with one of the giants of the Southern hemisphere. It makes sense. After watching an aging Ireland struggle against our youth and industry, a stuttering England who treated the biggest tournament in the sport as little more than a lads holiday, a transitional Scotland and a hopeless Italy all crash out of the tournament, why would France stand in our way? Is there any doubt that we are indeed the best the Northern Hemisphere has to offer?
Consider the evidence then. France’s problems have already been well documented. Their coach, Marc Lievremont, who once famously said everyone hates the English must know how they feel. He’s bore the flak from New Zealand and French reporters alike after fielding a weakened team against the All Blacks in a match where defeat was preferred. Certainly after last weekend’s match he will have few friends in England. It is likely even his own squad, which prior to the tournament had used a ridiculous amount of players, have their doubts over working with him as he continues to try and force a rugby revolution no-one wants; players out of position, total rugby in the foulest sense.
The youngsters have learned from this, taken the heat, been tempered and polished. No more disappointment, no more humility in the face of defeats
They have looked an individually talented group of players lacking cohesion, lacking direction, lacking leadership. They will come up against a Welsh team that has none of these deficiencies. In the four years since crashing out against Fiji the senior players that remain are mentally stronger and now have some explosive youth to prop up them and their creaking limbs. Not that fitness has been a factor of course, the extra training prior to this cup paying off dividends that should have seen an early triumph over South Africa as proof we would be a force this tournament.
Despite the inclusion of experience players such as Gethin Jenkins – 80 caps into his career and he believes this is the best team he has played in – it is the captaincy of the young Sam Warburton that has helped galvanise this team. If anyone thought Warren Gatland’s tributes to the 23 year old were little more than pre-tournament hype, the evidence has been out there on the field that, if anything, he was downplaying just how good he was. A string of brilliant individual performances have earmarked the youngest captain ever at a world cup as one of the MVPs at the event. His ability to lead the pack and his team is never in question and despite his comparative tender years everyone defers to his wisdom. The youngster is a born winner and the statistics back it up. Voted the best player in the pool before the game against Ireland, after another demolition job of his rival number, Sean O’Brien, he now has the highest number of steals of any player in the tournament. He is a defensive rock, a player who leads by example. Ferocious in the tackle, a human wall that has, so far, proved impenetrable.
If his contribution hasn’t been enough then the fact that we finally have a winger that would not look out of place in a Southern Hemisphere side has been even more cause for cheer. George North has already proven at just 19 he can cope against the best teams in the world not just going forward but also, as is often crucially overlooked, defensively as well. His tries against Namibia, where he became the youngest scorer at a world cup, might not point to a world beater for the layman. His strong running and world class offloads will see him score and create tries against many better teams and don’t bet against France being the first of many.
Then there’s emergence of the fly-half Rhys Priestland. While he remains a doubt for le crunch against France due to a shoulder injury, there’s those who think this might be some kidology, coming off when the game was won three minutes from time to keep France guessing about whether or not they have to face his distribution. I don’t know why this would be a subject for debate because if he is fit he will be on the pitch, of that there is no doubt.
Incredibly Preistland hadn’t even played fly half before the world cup started. Now we’re all thankful Gatland took the gamble. Perhaps more so than any player his calm performance against Ireland is responsible for the victory. Like all great fly-halfs he dictated the pace of the game, he put his forwards in great field position and he distributed the ball impeccable to a back line that was raring to go. It was a performance that Neil Jenkins would have been proud of and it was one that so dynamic he’d be the first to admit he’d not have been capable of it, despite his clear talents.
Crucial to victory over France will be the battle of the centres. It is the one area where France will feel confident, the ability of Aurélien Rougerie at outside a known threat. Yet if they were to sit down and watch a replay of the Ireland game, watch how the hulking Jamie Roberts made Brian O’Driscoll look like the youngster, and that confidence will melt away like morning frost. At only 24 the Cardiff man is already making a habit of taking some big scalps with his brutal tackling and direct running of the ball. If anyone can shut down the flair of Rougerie it is Roberts and where at the start of the tournament it would have seemed like a tall order, now it is the expectation.
The Welsh is crackling with energy and pride. Having already matched their best ever showing at a World Cup, all the way back in 1987 just as many of these players were being born or taking their first steps, It is now time to go one better. France do not look like finalists. They are tough opponents for any team but they have slogged and struggled through the competition and have had their time.
Coming into the competition the stereotype surrounding Wales was that of chokers, a team that would come close to victory before losing heroically, the sound of “Bread of Heaven” ringing in their ears as their home nation applauds their plucky underdog status. The youngsters have learned from this, taken the heat, been tempered and polished. No more disappointment, no more humility in the face of defeats. They are on a collision course with the All Blacks and, if the truth be told, that would be the only fitting end to the World Cup as it has panned out so far.
Cymru Am Byth.
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