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FEATURE Wales leave World Cup with regrets but with their 'heads held high'

Wales leave World Cup with regrets but with their 'heads held high'
7 months ago

Welsh fans are renowned for their singing but at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille that vocal pride took a dent as they were outshone by the noise and colour brought by the Argentinian fans who flooded the port city in their thousands.

At the end of a tense, see-sawing knockout game, it was the sights and sounds of South America that rose into the night sky, as Los Pumas celebrated a 29-17 victory over a Welsh side that will pack bags filled with regrets.

Why? Because in the first 30 minutes of the game, they were the better side. More accurate, more ambitious and more aggressive in defence. They wove intricate patterns behind the scrum and found holes in a stretched Argentinian defence. When Dan Biggar sped in under the posts, Welsh hearts swelled with pride. They played with a swagger that bore the hallmarks of Pool winners, exuding confidence and belief, and their fans dared to dream of a sojourn in the City of Lights for semi-finals week.

The problems started, as they often do, at the set-piece. Wales had three attacking line-outs in five minutes, to press home their dominance and missed all three, relieving the pressure on Michael Cheika’s men. In the 28th minute, Dan Biggar, who normally turns away a second before the ball bisects the posts, grimaced as the ball sailed left of the posts. Then there was the handling errors as passes were fired rather than finessed. Slowly Argentina edged back into the contest. In the dying moments of first-half, with Wales 10-3 up, Josh Adams erroneously shoulder charged Tomás Cubelli and was lucky to escape with a penalty, but another three points from Boffelli on the cusp of half-time meant Argentina were within four points. In touching distance.

Dan Biggar
Dan Biggar gave Wales hope with an early try but it was to prove a disappointing day for Wales  (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

The Argentina crowd played their part, sensing a shift in momentum and two further penalties drew them into the lead for the first time on 47 minutes, as the noise levels rose. For the first time in the tournament, Wales were chasing the lead, and started forcing the plays. Warren Gatland later surmised that they tried to play too much rugby in the middle of the park. They were able to regain the lead, however, through a smart, darting run from Tomos Williams, on 56 minutes, but held on for only 11 minutes, as a beefy Argentinian pack wore Wales down. In that time, Liam Williams departed the field after carrying a knee injury into the game, and Welsh hopes started to recede.

On 64 minutes, with Wales still 17-12 up, Wales had right to be frustrated by the decision of replacement ref, Karl Dickson, not to penalise Guido Petti for making contact with the head of centre Nick Tompkins. Despite no action being taken, Tompkins had to leave the field for an HIA, weakening Wales, and forcing Biggar to move into an unfamiliar inside-centre role, and Costelow to 10. Indeed, Gatland said at the subsequent press conference that he was looking forward to hearing the conclusions of the panel in reviewing the game.

As Wales grew increasingly desperate, Rio Dyer broke free and Louis Rees-Zammit was inches away from a spectacular score on 74 minutes, but a desperate Matias Moroni tackle was enough to protect Argentina’s lead.

As Wales started to lose shape, after more concerted pressure, and despite Biggar’s vocal protestations that Dillon Lewis had secured turnover ball, on 67 minutes, Argentina were able to retain the lead and not relinquish it again, as big Joel Scalvi rumbled over from close range.

As Wales grew increasingly desperate, Rio Dyer broke free and Louis Rees-Zammit was inches away from a spectacular score on 74 minutes, but a desperate Matias Moroni tackle was enough to protect Argentina’s lead. Minutes later Wales’ resolve was finally broken when a looping Sam Costelow pass to Tomos Williams was read by Nicolas Sanchez, to scurry away under the posts. A late Boffelli penalty gave the score line more gloss than it warranted in Argentina’s favour.

Juan Cruz Mallia
Juan Cruz Mallia celebrates with Argentine fans at the end of an enthralling quarter-final against Wales (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

To their credit, Argentina, who had been written off after their collapse against England in the tournament opener, celebrated wildly, stripping off their shirts and mixing with fans. They will live to fight another day against New Zealand, where in all likelihood their resistance will be ended. A third World Cup semi-final in five attempts is a robust return for this proud nation.

As for Wales, what now? Warren Gatland batted off questions about his future, claiming he hadn’t looked at the small print of a break-clause in his contract. He did, however, say he was happy to carry on in his second coming at Wales’ saviour. Despite the pain of the exit, Wales now have firm foundations to prepare for the 2027 World Cup. They have an outstanding leader and player in Jac Morgan, who could be in situ for the next two World Cups. The adamantine Dewi Lake, will also continue to be a conduit to his close friend, and there are a glut of youngsters who will be coming into their prime in Australia. Dafydd Jenkins, Christ Tshiunza, Mason Grady, Rio Dyer and Tommy Reffell will all have benefitted from the exposure they’ve had this tournament, and in Louis Rees-Zammit, Wales have a superstar-in-waiting. All are 24 and under. Gatland struck a positive tone to those players. “We’ve got to make sure we continue to grow as a team. There are some exciting players coming through.”

Whether a change of role for Gatland is mooted, similar to Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber over the last four years, as a Director of Rugby and head coach, time will tell. A new-look Welsh Rugby Union administration have no time to spare.

What was interesting was that he also sent a message to some of the players who weren’t in Marsielle for various reasons. “Hopefully they will be inspired by this group and want to make sure they work hard as well to be involved going forward.”

It’s open to conjecture, but for the likes of Rhys Carre, still only 25, who still has all the tools to be a serious player on the Test stage, Joe Hawkins, who has chosen to hone his game at Exeter Chiefs due to the mess he left behind in Wales, Taine Plumtree, who was plucked from obscurity in New Zealand and looks to have potential as a hybrid back five player, or young Morgan Morse, the destructive 19-year-old Ospreys tyro who could soon be putting pressure on Wales’ established backrow, there is still a rich seam of talent within the Welsh system. Whether a change of role for Gatland is mooted, similar to Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber over the last four years, as a Director of Rugby and head coach, time will tell. A new-look Welsh Rugby Union administration have no time to spare.

Jac Morgan
Jac Morgan had an outstanding tournament and will lead Wales for years to come (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Gatland will have to decide, in time, whether George North, Gareth Anscombe,  Liam Williams and Tomas Francis, all in their early thirties, still have the appetite for Test rugby, and whether they’re too valuable to discard. You sense that Costelow, still only 22, would benefit from another year as apprentice to the vastly experienced, Anscombe. Indeed, it is a crying shame that Anscombe and Williams have been forced to continue plying their trade in Japan, because of the lack of opportunities in Wales. That’s the harsh reality Welsh rugby has to face on their return from the World Cup bubble.

Wales were written off six months ago as no-hopers, a laughing stock who would be lucky to escape their Pool, but they depart from the tournament with their heads held high and the seeds of recovery sewn for a continued renaissance

Finally, one has to doff their cap to those legends who Welsh fans will not see again a Welsh shirt. Dan Biggar has been a sterling ambassador for Wales. A general on the field and a gentleman off it, he will be sorely missed and will go down as one of the best 10s of his generation. It is also, surely, the end for Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Lydiate. With 173 caps between them. They have put their bodies on the line for Wales on countless occasions and tasted intoxicating success and crushing lows but crucially retire with their names firmly etched into Welsh rugby folklore.

Wales were written off six months ago as no-hopers, a laughing stock who would be lucky to escape their Pool, but they depart from the tournament with their heads held high and the seeds of recovery sewn for a continued renaissance. They have put pride back in the Welsh shirt and given their supporters a reason to smile again. It had been a long time coming and for that they deserve immense credit.

Potential Wales team for Australia RWC (age in 2027)

  1. Rhys Carre (29)
  2. Dewi Lake (28)
  3. Dillon Lewis (32)
  4. Dafydd Jenkins (24)
  5. Teddy Williams (26)
  6. Christ Tshiunza (25)
  7. Jac Morgan (27)
  8. Aaron Wainwright (31)
  9. Tomos Williams (32)
  10. Sam Costelow (26)
  11. Rio Dyer (27)
  12. Joe Hawkins (25)
  13. Mason Grady (25)
  14. Louis Rees-Zammit (26)
  15. Tom Rogers (29)

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