How Wales went from team in disarray to World Cup pacesetters

It is still quite hard for anyone to comprehend what we witnessed in Lyon.

Certainly not one stunned Wales supporter as he left the stadium: “Forty points. Against Australia. Forty points. I can’t believe it.”

The thousands of Welsh fans fortunate to be at the OL Stadium will never forget the serene Sunday evening when Wales thrashed the Wallabies.

Wales cruised into the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals with a record 40-6 win against hapless Australia to make it three successive victories in Pool C, leaving Eddie Jones’ team on the brink of group-stage elimination.

Were Wales that good as they beat the previous best 25-point margin of victory against Australia? Or were the Wallabies that woeful, with former England boss Jones left to face the music as Australia lurch towards World Cup oblivion?

Maybe a bit of both – but the end result was the same. One that nobody really predicted.

Wales felt they did not receive enough plaudits for their opening bonus-point win against Fiji in Bordeaux. They deserve to be showered with praise for what they produced in Lyon.

Warren Gatland’s side went on a lap of honour to celebrate with the Welsh supporters, who had painted the French city red on a memorable weekend. It felt more like a Cardiff match day as the fans flocked to Lyon.

Gatland’s men are guaranteed to top the group if they defeat Georgia on 7 October, setting up a likely quarter-final clash against Argentina in Marseille seven days later.

It has been a remarkable transformation as Wales became the first country to claim a knockout place in France. They have done it with a pool match – and two weeks – still remaining.

It is a fourth successive World Cup quarter-final qualification for head coach Gatland with Wales. It is perhaps his most impressive achievement given where Wales have come from in the New Zealander’s second stint in charge.

So how did Wales go from a team in disarray to World Cup pacesetters in a matter of just a few months?

From strike threat to World Cup knockout

When Gatland replaced Wayne Pivac in December 2022, an immediate bounce was expected in the resulting Six Nations.

It never materialised with a disappointing fifth-place finish and only one win away in Italy. Off the field, a player strike for the home game against England over contractual issues was only averted three days before the match in Cardiff.

Then captain Ken Owens stood alongside Welsh Rugby Union boss Nigel Walker in the fading February light at the team’s training base and stated Wales had become the “laughing stock of world rugby”. They were chastening times.

“There were a lot of things going on before the Six Nations,” said Gatland.

“Contract issues and the players getting offered them, so then just understanding the frustrations from them in terms of security and future and families and stuff.

“I probably didn’t realise at the time the impact that had on the coaching staff and probably even myself.

“I had to sit back and let things unfold until after the Six Nations when you can get a squad together.”

Rebuild and regroup

That squad met up in May but there was more upheaval with the retirements of Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric and an injury to Six Nations skipper Owens.

Gatland moved towards youth and went back to basics with gruelling training camps in Switzerland and Turkey and he is starting to reap the rewards.

The Wales boss made some bold predictions before the tournament started. Wales were going to “shock people” and achieve “something special” in France he said. So far, his sentiments have been more than backed up by results.

The bonus-point victories against Fiji and Portugal have been followed up by this demolition job against Australia.

“We’ve been together for four months now,” said Gatland.

“You know you can put the detail, preparation and hard work in that we always pride ourselves on. We’re such a small nation as a tier-one nation in terms of playing numbers.

“We’re proud our success has been based on hard work and punching above our weight. We get confidence from results like the one against Australia and building momentum. That makes us even more dangerous going forward.”

Gatland says the Wallabies result was for the whole squad.

“The message against Australia wasn’t about the starting XV or 23 – it’s a squad of 33, coaches and staff,” said Gatland.

“Everyone has made a lot of sacrifices in the last four months, we’ve got some great people in this environment.

“A lot of family and loved ones have been following us as well. The message from me beforehand was ‘you get what you deserve in life’ from putting that hard work and effort in.

“We’ve been through some pain and tough times. We’ve pushed some players right to the edge and they’ve fronted up.

“We’ve got a brilliant balance in this group in terms of taking the mickey out of each other and some real banter.

“When they’re asked to front up and perform at training, they get their heads on and knuckle down. I’m happy with the environment. Hopefully that continues over the next couple of weeks.”

Captain Morgan

Wales captain Jac Morgan plays for Ospreys
Wales captain Jac Morgan plays for Ospreys

Flanker Jac Morgan has epitomised the switch to youth with the 23-year-old named as co-captain alongside hooker Dewi Lake for the tournament.

Morgan has emerged as one of the World Cup stars with outstanding performances in the first three games.

Gareth Anscombe’s 23-point haul ensured the fly-half received the man-of-the-match award against Australia after coming on as a replacement for the injured Dan Biggar, who Wales hope will be fit for the knockout stages.

But Morgan was also brilliant against the Wallabies, scoring a try, creating another for Gareth Davies with a sublime inside pass, topping the tackle charts and even producing a brilliant 50:22 attacking kick that helped change the game.

Morgan is beginning to have the same influence a certain young Sam Warburton held when he was handed the Wales captaincy by Gatland in 2011.

“He’s growing into this role,” said Gatland.

“It takes a little bit of time. He’s still a young man and I threw him in at the deep end. He’s been absolutely outstanding.

“I told him on the way that he spoke brilliantly during the week. I have huge amount of admiration for him.

“He’s definitely a player for the future and one who leads from the front and he did exactly that against Australia. It was a brilliant performance from him.”

Marseille bound

Wales players have three days off before attention turns towards the next phase.

They now know they will be heading to Marseille in mid-October for the last-eight encounter but will first be back in their Versailles base before travelling south to Nantes for the final pool game.

A win over Georgia will ensure it is a Saturday game on quarter-final weekend in the southern France port city against the runners-up in Pool D.

That will probably be Argentina but could still be Japan or Samoa, while England are in line to face Fiji in the other last-eight match in Marseille on Sunday, 15 October.

The top four sides in the world – South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand and France – are set to be in the other half of the draw with two massive quarter-finals being staged in Paris, while fifth-ranked Scotland are in danger of missing out. Ireland or New Zealand would be potential semi-final opponents for Wales.

“I know a lot has been spoken about this side of the draw, but it is what it is, it’s not our fault,” said Gatland.

“We can get into the quarter-finals and build on that then, without looking further ahead, it’s one game at a time.

“Our focus next week will be all on Georgia, a team we lost against last autumn. We need to rectify that and need to make sure we do not drop our standards and the players are well aware of that.”

Gatland is trying to keep expectations at manageable levels. Wales fans, especially those present in Lyon last night, will now dare to dream. After what they have just witnessed, it will be hard not to.

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