Magnificent Wales reach World Cup semi-finals
Hats off to a magnificent Welsh display. Hats off to the mastermind Warren Gatland, to the inspirational captain Sam Warburton, and to the happy band of colourful Welsh supporters who make every game seem like a World Cup final. Their passion breathes life into each and every one of their contests. I want to isolate one man though, because despite the three excellent Welsh tries, the victory over Ireland was built on a teak-tough defence.
Hats off to a magnificent Welsh display. Hats off to the mastermind Warren Gatland, to the inspirational captain Sam Warburton, and to the happy band of colourful Welsh supporters who make every game seem like a World Cup final. Their passion breathes life into each and every one of their contests.
I want to isolate one man though, because despite the three excellent Welsh tries, the victory over Ireland was built on a teak-tough defence.
To give you some idea, the Welsh had completed 85 tackles at half time, compared to 46 by the Irishmen. Lock forward Luke Charteris had made 16 of those by himself, before withdrawing, injured, from the field of battle.
Wales reached their first World Cup semi-finals in 24 years and on this evidence Sam Warbuton's side will fancy their chances of reaching a maiden World Cup final. PHOTO: Getty
Wales knew they had to withstand the Irish barrage, and the only way to do that was by throwing their bodies on the line repeatedly. Normally the defensive plaudits would head in the direction of the back row, and indeed they should this time, too. But the efforts of the entire team were staggering.
Not content with a scorching opening try to set the tone, the former World Player of the Year catapulted himself into harm’s way in order to preserve his side’s lead. It was a moment which epitomised the collective Welsh desire.
Edwards’ contribution was not simply to ensure the defensive structure was robust. He and Gatland have been working on a strategy for some weeks now. It involves a return to one of the fundaments of the game – tackling the opposition low down, to prevent any momentum.
“We were trying to take the Irish feet from under them straight away” said Gatland. “We looked at the Italian game last week, and Italy went too high against Ireland. Our focus was to go very low, and try to deny their ball-carriers any go-forward.”
Edwards is not a man to dish out praise in a hurry, but he was purring afterwards, saying: “The leg-tackling was of the highest order. We’ve spent a lot of time in the last few months trying to reinvent the art of leg-tackling. To do that you need players with technique and courage, and we definitely had that.”
Needless to say, all that defending saps the energy. Whilst the Irish laboured over their rucks, shovelled slow ball out to their ball-carriers and became more desperate with every passing second-half minute, the Welsh remained spring-heeled.
This is where the benefits of a painful trip to Poland bore fruit. The cryogenic chambers, the ice baths and the spartan conditions almost certainly offered little in the way of fun. But the benefits were on display inside the Cake Tin. Chips down, lungs bursting, Welshmen manned the barricades.
“Our defence was absolutely outstanding, and it shows what good shape the guys are in. They were getting excited about defending without the ball,” said Gatland.
For periods of the first half they had opportunities galore, possession galore, territory galore, but little to show in the way of a reward. Wales’ defence was magnificent, but a side packed with Grand Slam winners and Heineken Cup champions should have found a way through.
The two second-half tries they conceded were soft, from an Irish perspective. There was no-one home on the blindside for Mike Phillips' cheeky score, and Jonathan Davies was waved through the midfield by Cian Healy and Keith Earls.
For many of this Ireland team, there will be no more World Cups. Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Gordon D’Arcy and Paul O’Connell will not be around for 2015. For such warriors of the Irish cause, it was a deeply disappointing way to end a campaign so full of promise after that victory over the Wallabies.
So the Welsh are left to fly the flag of the home unions into the remaining fortnight Down Under. They will fly it with pride, and a spirit of adventure. They are an overwhelmingly young group, cutting impressive figures here: driven, single-minded, fearless and friendly. In the interviews after the game I was struck by the calm responses from the players as they head towards a semi-final clash with England’s conquerors France.
There was a contentment, a satisfaction at a job well done, but no jubilation, no over-excitement. As their remarkably mature 23-year-old captain Warburton said, “we’ve won nothing yet”.
Indeed they haven’t, but a World Cup final place is now well within the Welsh grasp, and a fairytale ending is not out of the question. There were grown men clad from head-to-toe in red, leaping uncontrollably into each other’s arms as the final whistle blew in Wellington. If it all ends tomorrow, this Welsh team has already made a lot of people very happy.