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FEATURE Warren Gatland turns Wales into unlikely World Cup contenders

Warren Gatland turns Wales into unlikely World Cup contenders
8 months ago

Out they trooped. One by one. In comparison with the dusty-eyed Wallabies, who had taken to navel-gazing, as their feet dragged on the tarmac ahead of them  ambling onto the waiting transport, there was a widespread feeling of satisfaction coursing through the Welsh camp in the hours after their tub-thumping 40-6 win.

‘How are you feeling, Liam [Williams]?’, the assembled reporters enquired, gone midnight. ‘Tired,’ came the weary response. With the glare of the TV cameras causing them to squint, Gatland’s unlikely heroes continued to emerge in dribs and drabs.

Everywhere you looked, there were tales of redemption. Gareth Anscombe, who let’s remember is starting to chalk up a number of clutch moments in a 37-cap Wales career – 2019 Grand Slam campaign, a winning kick to defeat Springboks in their backyard for the first time and now a leading role in inflicting the largest Northern Hemisphere defeat on Australia in their history – could afford to cock a snook at his critics, after a 23-point haul, where he unlocked the fly-halves cheat code, after just one game in five months.

Gareth Davies, with muscles popping out of his t-shirt like Popeye, had been written off just nine months ago by the majority of rugby fans after slipping to third choice scrum-half at the Scarlets. He threw out a tentative, ‘does anyone want to speak to me?’, and reporters gathered in similar way to a gaggle of ducks when some bread is cast into a suburban pond.

Aaron Wainwright bounded past, looking fresh as a daisy, as if he hadn’t stretched every sinew in repelling the constant wave of Australian behemoths, hammering the red line. Taulupe Faletau, saw the media melee, gave a little smile of acknowledgement and opted to stay in the shadows as he took the low road to the team bus.

Gareth Davies
Gareth Davies has turned his Test career around in a matter of months (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

One man bubbling with satisfaction was Nick Tompkins. More than most, Chislehurst’s finest, has had his worth questioned. ‘Is he a Gatland type of player?’ Is he big enough? Is he at risk because he was a Pivac pick? It was hardly the Saracens’ fault that his Wrexham-born grandmother Enid, came after Gatland’s first act, but he has answered his critics emphatically.

The inside-centre has been one of Wales’ standout players in this tournament. He is, lest we forget, Wales most decorated domestic player – by some distance, with four Heineken Cups wins to his name and Gatland has privately reminded him of his worth. Tompkins excelled again, tackling players in green and gold until he could give no more. Offering himself as a human sacrifice to the muscular Semu Kerevi, in order to put Jac Morgan through the gap, to set up Davies for Wales’ first score, Tompkins routinely takes punishment for others to thrive.

One man who slipped away into the shadows, after sitting at the top-table with Gatland, was Jac Morgan. Morgan isn’t one for soundbites. He is the polar opposite of the man who had just departed the auditorium minutes earlier, Eddie Jones.

Better was to come when Anscombe, who was warming to surprise cameo, dinked a ball over the leaden-footed Wallaby defence, and Tompkins reacted quickest, dabbing down ahead of his opposite number, Kerevi. His celebrations were of unalloyed joy. He leapt into the air, shaking his arms as adrenalin coursed through his veins. Not so a scripted Cristiano Ronaldo finish, à la Louis Rees-Zammit. “I don’t know what happened, I just kind of blanked out,” he proffered, almost apologetically.

His growing understanding with George North bodes well. North has wilfully put aside the personal glory, which is in-built in most 48-try Test wingers, to play a mature, selfless defensive role.

One man who slipped away into the night, after sitting at the top-table to face the press with Gatland, was Jac Morgan. Morgan isn’t one for soundbites. He is the polar opposite of the man who had just departed the auditorium minutes earlier, Eddie Jones, but even senior players are running out of superlatives when describing the man from Cwmtwrch, who has only played on 14-occasions for Wales.

Jac Morgan
Jac Morgan has been in spectacular form for Wales during the World Cup (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

How many opensides can boast a cross-kick assist, a 70 metre 22-22 to relieve pressure, a try-assist and two tries in their opening three matches? Not Josh van der Flier, Sam Cane or Siya Kolisi, that’s for sure. For someone relatively low-slung, his pace, which pulled him away from the Wallaby defence for Davies’ try, and saw him outpacing outside backs after his clearance kick, mark him out as a rare athlete. Defensive duties? He doesn’t shirk them either and regularly tops the tackle counts, and he has an uncanny knack of emerging from a driving maul with the ball, having crossed the line. His bloodied, battle-worn face, caught during the action, could become an enduring image of Wales’ defiant spirit during this tournament.

It’s not just been about individual narratives, either. As a collective, Mike Forshaw, Jonathan Humphreys and Alex King deserve credit for the organisation and street smarts they have infused into the squad. This writer has witnessed enough toe-curling Welsh line-outs, either metres from their own try-line, or indeed, metres from the opposition’s tryline, to not get a tad giddy by a slick, well-run set-piece. They won ten scrums, made metres in eight mauls and won 17 of their 18 throws, and the speed with which they got the ball out gave Welsh runners, led by Faletau, ample time to thunder into Wallaby attackers. Indeed, the highly-rated Richie Arnold and Nick Frost, were expected to play havoc with Wales’ quick ball off-the-top, but it didn’t transpire and the grins on the faces of Will Rowlands and Adam Beard, told a story. Credit must go to Ryan Elias, who has kept the highly-rated Dewi Lake kicking his heels on the sidelines, waiting his turn.

Behind the machismo of Test-level sport, Gatland boasts a softer side. He has put family-first throughout his reign in charge with Wales, with his wife, Trudi to the fore.

The only blots on Wales’ evening were a pectoral injury to Dan Biggar, who, if you know the man in question, will find a way of returning to the squad for a quarter-final battle, and Louis Rees-Zammit, who walked off rather gingerly, late-on.

Gatland was one of the last to depart the scene. With a familiar smile and a bottle of beer, he sauntered through the masses after a satisfying win over his old sparring partner, Jones. Behind the machismo of Test-level sport, Gatland boasts a softer side, however. He has put family-first throughout his time in Wales, with his wife, Trudi to the fore, in making wider families feel welcome.

In this spirit, he has given the players three or four days off with which to let off steam, have a few beers, see their loved one’s before regrouping to get the job done against Georgia. It is in the job spec of the coach to know when to push the players hard, and when to pare back the workload and in his fifth World Cup, Gatland seems to have maintained the midas touch.

Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland has pulled together a squad and thrust them into the World Cup knock-out stages (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Wales are a surprise package, the first to qualify for the quarter-finals, and there’s been a feeling within the camp, that due respect has not been paid to a rapidly improving side. Gatland has incubated his squad from the clear issues that exist in the wider realms of Welsh rugby and a belief has been borne that this body of men are in France to make a name for themselves, not just to make up the numbers.

Of course, it is up to Gatland to keep a lid on expectations brimming over, or a false sense of destiny. He readily accedes that Wales are a work in progress, a confidence side and he knows Georgia may not be the walk-in-the-park some are expecting, but a date with Argentina in Marseille seems ever more likely.

The Welsh supporters, who have grown in number as the tournament has advanced, will be scrabbling around for any spare change to travel to the bustling Mediterranean port en masse. Their mellifluous voices enchanted the locals in the wine capital, Bordeaux, the glitzy capital of the Côte d’Azur, Nice, and the gastronomic capital of France, Lyon and a waterside backdrop to their vocal support will be next. Still unfancied, still underrated, Wales could yet inflict more metaphorical bloody noses before they’re felled in this tournament.

Gatland took a risk when returning to Wales, and many shrewd judges questioned whether he’d lost his edge. One night in Lyon proved that the Kiwi from Hamilton has lost none of his capacity to surprise.


Stephen 263 days ago

Sport relies sometimes on a bit of luck,wales will probably not win the world Cup,but as a welshman please all you critics let me savoir the moment.

johnz 263 days ago

No, Wales are not WC contenders.

Huw 263 days ago

Wales have one good game against a very poor Australian side and everyone thinks they've got a chance. Against any of the actual world cup contenders (France, Ireland, south Africa) they won't stand a chance. But, that said, they are vastly improved and I suspect should make the semi finals looking at the draw where they'll be trounced as they face one of the potential winners.

CO 263 days ago

Gatlands team are very very impressive, whoever wins the other quarter final out of Ireland/Scotland or NZ will very much have their hands full.

It's a real shame Foster got the Allblacks coaching role ahead of Gatland or Robertson, it's been 4 very long years.

The Wallabies had no answer and aren't that bad despite their injuries, reckless chairman and a coach well past his best.

Jmann 263 days ago

Wales should have lost to Fiji- essentially poor officiating kept them in that game.

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