By John Jones
They say it’s the hope that kills you.
Going into the World Cup off the back of a historic Grand Slam, Wales knew that their chances of getting their hands on the Webb Ellis Cup had never been better.
The players believed. Warren Gatland and his coaching team believed. Back home, from Bangor to Barry, Welsh supporters believed.
Yet those expectant hearts sank last Sunday as Gatland’s men succumbed to a 19-16 defeat at the hands of South Africa and missed out on a first ever World Cup final appearance.
Unlike the tournament classic contested by England and New Zealand the previous day, this was no festival of rugby. Both teams were sloppy for long periods of the game, with decisions too slow and the ball too airborne.
The Springboks held firm in defence, though, nullifying the Welsh attack, which made an average gain of just 1.6 metres per carry – an all-time World Cup low. In the end, the men in red could only watch on as Handre Pollard sent his 76th minute penalty attempt sailing through the posts along with his team into the final.
What makes this all the more frustrating, perhaps, is that this game is exactly the sort that Wales have learnt how to win. Or, rather, the sort that they have forgotten how to lose.
Flashback to a rainy Paris at the start of February. Wales find themselves 16-0 down at half-time after a hapless first 40 minutes, the prospect of a Grand Slam fanciful.
But yet, they emerge as 24-19 victors, coming out on top in an error-strewn match with a second-half performance unrecognisable to the first. The French imploded, but Wales demonstrated the hunger and mentality that has made them a team that can win from anywhere.
Even though they pushed this to the limit when the two teams met again in Oita for the quarter-final, as they trailed by six with five minutes remaining, you couldn’t help thinking that Wales were going to do it – and they did.
The same goes for the pool stage matches against Fiji and Georgia – both ultimately comfortable scorelines, but with frenetic periods in which it all could have gone very wrong indeed for Wales. After the Fijians flew out of the blocks and the Georgians rallied late on, Gatland’s side relied on the same discipline, desire and ability to do the basics right to emerge victorious.
Then there’s Australia – for many the finest display of Wales’ campaign and certainly the one that exemplifies their never-say-die mentality of late. A huge defensive shift from an experienced pack, combined with a calculated kicking game, meant that the Welsh were just too composed, too clever and too confident for the Wallabies. Tomos Williams’ incredible aerial acrobatics to keep the ball alive epitomised this.
As with any team, there were the standout individuals. Josh Adams has shown to the world his abilities as an outstanding finisher and Aaron Wainwright looks set to be another Warburton, whilst Alun Wyn Jones has, yet again, been talismanic.But, with a mile-long injury list featuring names like Anscombe, Faletau and latterly Navidi and Williams, it is a testament to the whole squad’s ability and mentality that they came so close to rugby’s top prize with pivotal members missing.
With Warren Gatland stepping down from his role after 12 unforgettable years, one hopes that this campaign will give Welsh rugby fans hope that their country remains amongst the big hitters of world rugby.