Hope springs for Wales
October 21, 2011
Leigh Halfpenny has emerged as a major plus for Wales at fullback © Getty Images
Strictly speaking this was only Wales's second best Rugby World Cup, being eased out by the third place finish in 1987, but speaking strictly, rather like literal application of the laws, does not always lead to just outcomes.
The 1987 team did well and felt, rightly, that their achievement was a little under-appreciated at the time, but this team undoubtedly did more. They looked the best team in the quarter-finals, could and should have won their semi and will come home to the welcome afforded teams who both raised national reputation and spirits and could be seen as unlucky losers. Like Argentina in 2007, they have some claim to be considered the team of the tournament.
They even contrived a suitable conclusion to the third place match - a 30-phase attack displaying control, invention and refusal to quit that left everybody with a happy memory, but was also in the end not quite enough. That Stephen Jones's admirable international career will presumably end with a successful kick was appropriate. You could argue that a Shane Williams touchdown would have been equally fitting, but Leigh Halfpenny's score - looking to the future rather than the past - made for even better symbolism.
The trick now is to avoid what happened to the 1987 team. Not the subsequent Triple Crown attained by brilliant rugby , but all the rest that followed - panicking, sacking the coach, and turning immense potential into arguably (with the 1920s providing the only real alternative) the worst decade in Welsh rugby history.
Sacking the coach seems pretty unlikely, but we only have to remember what happened not only to Tony Gray in 1988 but to Alan Davies in 1995 and Mike Ruddock in 2006, not long after significant achievements. Giving Warren Gatland a four year deal now looks a masterstroke, not least because it would make any moodswing by the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) extremely expensive.
It also means that should some other country come bearing great mountains of cash along with an emotional pull on Gatland's loyalties, they would also have to pay enough compensation to fund a new coach of comparable quality. That has to be the greater danger. New Zealand will not be the only country wondering by what alchemy the dullest team in the last Six Nations was transformed into vibrant World Cup contenders.
Success inevitably breeds imitators, we can at the very least expect those Polish cryogenic chambers to be filled with rugby players for the next few years. The nearest Gatland came to putting a foot wrong in New Zealand was those slightly indiscreet musings about faking an injury to force uncontested scrums in the semi-final. Fortunately it looks as though the IRB realise that simply thinking about cheating is hardly, even by the sometimes bizarre standards of sporting jurisprudence, a punishable offence. Had Gatland been indicted, we can be sure that he would have answered the case himself rather than letting some junior take the blame. With Wales, there was never any doubt where the buck stops.
At the same time the WRU will want to think about retaining Gatland's coaching team. While there is always a danger of sameness about long-running combinations - something the All Blacks acknowledged when Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen switched roles for a while - there surely must be a serious attempt to retain Shaun Edwards. Unconventional as he is, it might be worth trying the simple orthodoxy of showing appreciation by offering a substantially enhanced contract.
As for the players, one of the pleasures of watching Wales in New Zealand in 2011 was knowing most should still be around in 2015. The few that may not should not automatically be discarded. Wales have already undergone one change of generations this year, making evolution rather than further revolution the sensible course.
As Clive Woodward once pointed out, there are few better ways of developing good players than winning matches. It is possible that Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones and Ryan Jones - who will be 34 in 2015 - or Mike Phillips, a year younger, will be gone before the next World Cup, but there's certainly a role for them, and Six Nations Championships to be contested, over the next two or three years.
So we should expect the team that plays Australia in December to look pretty much like the one that played in the World Cup. The match will, after all, be a homecoming celebration of their achievements, combined with a farewell for the inimitable Shane Williams - who should probably be in on a cut from the receipts for giving point to what would otherwise be yet another 'Servicing the WRU Overdraft' Test.
So where are the issues beyond that ? One will be where to play Halfpenny. Slated as the heir to Shane on the wing, he now looks like the fullback who can give Wales the extra dimension of incisive pace from the back that Josh Lewsey at this best offered to England.
Inevitably linked to that is the issue of what to do about James Hook. His ability to play three positions at international level means he'll make the 22 for as long as he's fit and in form, but with Rhys Priestland nailing down the No.10 shirt and making the double-blunderbuss centre pairing work as intended, he may be destined for a lot of bench-warming over the next few years. Injuries and loss of form by others may play as important a role in determining his international future as how he himself goes at Perpignan.
We must also hope that the newly-revitalised Phillips does not revert to the less effective version seen over the past two years, making the emergence of a serious alternative/successor a matter of medium-term rather than immediate concern. The back and second-rows are as good, and as young, as Wales have had in years, with the one real forward concern the medium-term future of the front three.
So the future looks bright. What can possibly spoil it? As Harold MacMillan invariably pointed out when asked such questions 'Events, dear boy, events'. We can but hope - which is a whole lot better than the despair that has far more often been the predominant Welsh emotion after World Cups.
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