Rugby World Cup
Gatland excited by tough draw
December 1, 2008
Wales boss Warren Gatland and his South African counterpart Peter de Villiers shake hands at today's RWC draw © Getty Images
Wales coach Warren Gatland came out fighting after his side were drawn in the "the toughest pool" for Rugby World Cup 2011.
The current Six Nations champions can look forward to taking on holders South Africa, and Wales' 2007 Rugby World Cup destroyers Fiji in New Zealand in three years time after being handed a testing schedule in today's pool allocation draw. The task awaiting them may get even tougher still with Samoa most-likely to claim the Oceania 1 qualifying spot in the pool with the group being completed by Africa 1 - probably Namibia.
Gatland, who took over as Wales head coach a year ago today, has already guided his team to a Six Nations title and a leap of five places from 10th to fifth in the International Rugby Board world rankings. Wales were also the solitary European team to defeat Tri-Nations opposition during a deflating autumn series, beating their possible 2011 World Cup quarter-final opponents Australia on Saturday.
England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy, meanwhile, suffered a total of eight defeats between them as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa ran riot. Even in the games Wales lost - 20-15 to South Africa and 29-9 against New Zealand - they dominated 40 minutes of each Test match.
Gatland said: "It is a great draw and we are excited about it. Look at the World Cup last year - the winners of the competition came from the toughest pool. If we come out of it (the group), then we are in pretty good shape for the quarter-finals as we will have played some tough rugby, as long as we don't pick up too many injuries. I think this is the toughest pool."
Wales have never met South Africa in a World Cup fixture - but they know all about Fiji and Samoa. Fiji knocked them out of last year's tournament, winning 38-34 in Nantes and ending Gareth Jenkins' miserable spell as Wales coach.
Samoa, meanwhile, can boast two World Cup wins against Wales - both in Cardiff - in 1991 and 1999. Gatland added: "Fiji and Samoa will have a huge amount of support (in New Zealand) and the crowd will be really behind them. Hopefully, we will get a bit of support for South Africa, but we need it for the other two as well. We have played the three toughest teams in the world this autumn, and there is a significant amount of improvement to come from our game.
"We are trying to get some confidence against the southern hemisphere by winning a few games. The players learn from time in the middle, they learn about keeping their composure against these teams.
"Our first target was to try to be in the (world's) top five. We are there now - we were ranked 10th when I took over. The players can see some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of where we are going. If we come out of it, then we are in pretty good shape for the quarter-finals as we will have played some tough rugby, as long as we don't pick up too many injuries.
The overwhelming majority of Gatland's existing squad are likely to be around in 2011, and he hopes world-class flanker Martyn Williams will be among them. Williams, who will be 36 when Wales head to New Zealand, remains an inspirational presence for his team-mates.
Gatland said: "Martyn will still be playing if we look after him. He is pretty important for us, and long-term we've been thinking about how we get him through to the World Cup."
Springboks coach Peter de Villiers backed Wales to go from "strength to strength" under Gatland, with both de Villiers and skipper John Smit accepting South Africa found themselves in a demanding group.
"It is a tough draw and it will be a very physical pool, but I am happy with the draw," said de Villiers. "We will be monitoring these nations' progress over the coming months, but we know what they are capable of when they are on song.
"Wales will only go from strength to strength, and we know the Pacific Islands produce outstanding players - you only have to look back to last year's World Cup to know what a threat they can pose."
Smit made comparisons with South Africa's pool allocation in France last year. He said: "Last time, we were drawn against the top team from Britain - which was then England - and this time we have been drawn against Wales, who are the current Six Nations champions.
"We also played two teams from the Pacific Islands, and this time we have Fiji and an Oceania qualifier, which is very likely to be Samoa. The draw has a similar feel to last time, and the good thing is that we will be well-tested during the competition.
"You don't want to breeze through your pool, and we certainly won't have that luxury."