Wales bowed out of the Rugby World Cup on Saturday following a narrow defeat to South Africa.
Speaking to lots of our coffee-shop regulars in the build up to that game, I sensed an unusual level of optimism both from the press in Wales and amongst fans (including myself). History, of course was not on our side, although even the recent history of an eleventh straight loss to Australia during the final round of group games was not enough to dampen Welsh spirits.
It wasn’t to be, however, and despite an undeniably valiant performance from the men in red, the Springboks prevailed convincingly in many aspects of the game, the scoreboard perhaps adding a gloss to what was, for the later stages especially, a rather one-sided affair.
Wales can take heart from this world cup. The well-documented injury list is surely in double figures, although a few of the replacements drafted in have certainly staked their claim for a Six Nations berth. Gareth Davies has impressed throughout in a position that many felt Rhys Webb had made his own. I thought Scott Williams was outstanding prior to his own injury, too – long hailed as a ‘super-sub’, I now feel we really do have three world-class centres in Williams, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.
Sam Warburton has also had a decent tournament, and I couldn’t possibly compile this sort of list without mention of Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones, both of whom have absolutely given everything, and who indeed make me proud to support Wales.
The semi-finals comprise of all four teams from The Rugby Championship (the southern hemisphere’s premier annual international tournament), and following heavy defeats of France by New Zealand and Ireland to the hands of Argentina, as well as Scotland’s painfully narrow loss to Australia, lots of media outlets have been questioning the future of international rugby in Europe.
It’s no secret…the big three of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have been far superior to the Six Nations teams for many years. The gap is closing, but the fact is none of the home nations regularly beat any of those teams. Wales’ tactic during Warren Gatland’s reign has been strength, and power. It’s helped win us three Six Nations titles, and become one of the most consistent teams in Europe. To me, it’s how we combine strength and power with skill, game management and flair that represents the difference between the north and the south. Teams like the All Blacks know how and when to change from using a power game to relying on personal skill. And you see this instinct from 1 to 15, not just amongst the backs, not just amongst the leaders.
I believe we are not far from the complete package in Wales. This group of players will learn a lot from this experience, as many of them did from the last world cup. At the final whistle, I sensed they now know what is required of them to progress further next time. Whether as a squad they are capable of producing such a performance, we shall see, but with Gatland at the helm until 2019, hopefully we will have enough consistency in our ranks to give us a fighting chance.