Celts earn Kiwi respect by embracing thrills and spills

Wales and Ireland have lit up the World Cup, and their tie is the hottest of tickets. By Chris Hewett
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If it is true to say that folk in New Zealand thought little of England rugby players as a breed before the rotten "Auckland Four" tour of 2008, had even less time for them after that trip and positively loathe them now they have at least had cause to give them due consideration as a half-decent team. The Celts, meanwhile, do not register so much as a blip on the All Black nation's radar. Or rather, they didn't until they started tripping the light fantastic in this tournament.

Suddenly, things look very different for Ireland and Wales, if not for Scotland, who have already left for home. The Irish victory over Australia here in Auckland two and a half weeks ago upset the applecart completely and the southern hemisphere types are still getting their heads around the consequences.

Wales, meanwhile, can already point to three significant achievements. By pushing South Africa, the reigning champions, unbelievably hard in the opening match, then finding a way past a supremely perilous Samoan team and ruthlessly dismantling Fiji 66-0, the Red Dragonhood surpassed the expectations of their own followers.

And now the two most passionate Celtic rugby nations will meet in a quarter-final in Wellington that has genuinely captured the imagination of local supporters. Why the heavy interest? Put it down to style. Ireland have played some attractive stuff, Wales are producing rugby that is drop-dead beautiful.

The former All Black Warren Gatland has had his difficult moments since being appointed a couple of months or so after the last World Cup. He peaked early with a Six Nations Grand Slam, but soon found himself hurting. But since the 2009 Lions tour, which was heavily populated by Welsh players and featured Gatland on the back-room staff, there has been a transformation: a fast-tracking of fresh talent, a toughening up of the forward pack and a renewed commitment to attacking rugby. Some of the old guard are here on active duty but have been marginalised; others cast aside.

Among the principal players now are George North, the 19-year-old wing; Rhys Priestland, the new man at No 10; Toby Faletau, the Tongan-born No 8; and the recently appointed captain Sam Warburton. Of course, the return to form and fitness of Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones makes a mighty difference and the devastation being wreaked in midfield by Jamie Roberts helps no end. But the Europeans being spoken of here are North, Priestland and Warburton. If they are still being talked of a week from now, they will fancy their chances of making a World Cup final.