The pride of Wales
October 6, 2011
As flanker as skipper, Sam Warburton has impressed hugely for Wales © Getty Images
Part of the fun of major championships in any sport is the mixing of fans from different countries, exchanging opinion, banter, commiseration or congratulation according to circumstances.
A particularly vivid memory from the Euro 2000 football is of a group of Slovenes, clad in team shirts, being applauded the length of an alleyway of kebab shops in Brussels packed with fans of many countries the day after an epic 3-3 draw with Yugoslavia.
But to be Welsh at a Rugby World Cup has generally been to be the subject of sympathy rather than envy - until now. Even when the 1987 pioneers reached the semi-final, praise was tempered by awareness that it was courtesy of two ghastly matches against Ireland and England that confirmed everything New Zealanders - who had previously had no chance to see European teams playing each other - had feared about the then Five Nations.
While the third-place win at Rotorua was acclaimed like an All Black victory, it was largely because Australian coach Alan Jones would have swept any poll to find the most unpopular man in New Zealand at that time.
Then came the early exits of 1991 and 1995, and defeat by Samoa on the way to an anaemic effort in losing the quarter-final to Australia as hosts in 1999. The following tournament may have been better, but praise in 2003 for performances against New Zealand and England was in the context of honourable defeat rather than victory. Then came 2007, Nantes and Fiji.
If this year's campaign goes no further than defeat in Wellington on Saturday, it will have given Wales something unprecedented over the previous six campaigns - the unaffected regard and admiration of others. For the first time it is possible to believe that Wales might reach a World Cup final without needing some global experiment with hallucinogens or the discovery of a parallel universe in which Rugby World Cups have been played since the early 1900s.
There have still been some moments of bafflement. Amid some notably undistinguished broadcasting, nothing has been more puzzling than ITV's chosen experts treating defeat against South Africa - a match that could and should have been won - as though it were a victory, then the vital, hugely meritorious win-or-go-home victory over the excellent Samoans as though it were a defeat.
But these are minor quibbles alongside the immense benefits to have come from this tournament. We have seen the rise of a fresh generation of Welsh talent, a sense that however and whenever this World Cup ends for Warren Gatland's team there are further exciting times to come.
The issue of who captains Wales or occupies the openside of the back-row has surely been settled for the best part of a decade, assuming that Sam Warburton - 23 this week - retains a vestige of his current form and fitness.
We have in Rhys Priestland the authentic footballing outside-half whose calm decision-making and distribution have finally enabled Jamie Roberts to show that he does not need Brian O'Driscoll alongside him to look like a top-class attacker. George North has done enough to suggest that a two-try teenage debut against the Springboks was not beginner's luck, but the emergence of a truly formidable talent.
North and Priestland epitomise a further reason to be pleased - this team truly draws on all four of the Welsh regions. Warren Gatland, seeking short-term solutions when he arrived in 2008, relied almost entirely on the Ospreys. In time this evolved to something more like an Ospreys-Blues axis, with Scarlets as a minority partner.
Now all four are fully involved. The starting XV for Saturday contains four Ospreys, four Blues, three Scarlets and three Dragons plus newly-minted Bayonnais Mike Phillips, who has previously played for three of the four franchises.
The investment in youth made by the Scarlets and Dragons is paying serious dividends at national level. There have been times when it seemed as though Wales was in reality operating a three and a half team system, with the Dragons as a Connacht-like poor relation.
On a personal level it takes me back to 1994, to the very beginning of 15 years as rugby writer for the Financial Times. My first FT article focussed on the decline of rugby in Gwent and quoted historian Dai Smith, who said that "Wales cannot be strong unless there is strength in both east and west. Without that the centre cannot hold."
On that basis Wales is strong again. To have three Dragons - Toby Faletau, Dan Lydiate and Luke Charteris - in the first-choice pack does not quite yet equate to the all-Newport back row picked by in the early 1960s, Pontypool's contribution to the packs of the later 1970s or the eight Black and Ambers who figured in the first Triple Crown winning team in 1893, but it shows that Wales's Far East is back - and not before time.
So will Wales win on Saturday? God only knows, and he probably wouldn't commit himself too strongly. That you can say much the same of three of the four quarter-finals, and that almost every surviving team will be looking at the others and thinking them beatable, promises a fortnight of rugby rich in possibilities.
The vivacious form of Wales and Ireland has led to predictions of a classic. Maybe it will happen, but expectation is being tempered both by past experience - both previous World Cup meetings were shockers - and the fact that it is being played in Wellington, infamously prone to the wind and rain that can destroy decent rugby.
Ireland are, one suspects, the best of the four surviving European teams should they play at their best. And if Wales were to go out, it is hard to think of a conqueror that would occasion less resentment or be likelier to acquire much of our support to go with their own in the later stages. On balance, this column is pessimistic.
But then I doubted that Wales would get even this far, have rarely been happier to have been proved wrong and look forward to being still wider of the mark come Saturday morning.
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