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James Lawton: Gatland's dragons silence critics and breathe new fire into game


This morning on the rain-slicked waterfront a busker playing his fiddle has a flag stuck in his leather hatband. When it billows in the wind you see it bears the Welsh dragon.

This may be mere commercial opportunism but then at the taxi stand a very large Samoan is telling a group of his fellow drivers why he wants Wales to win this seventh World Cup.

"They are young but they are playing like real men," he declares. "They have come here with serious intentions."

Circumstantial evidence, you may say, but it is mounting wherever you turn. Wales may not have turned back the clock because the rugby they are playing here owes little to their more romantic past.

Still, the link is increasingly vivid in the strength and boldness of its running – so much so that an old picture comes back into focus. It is of Barry John in the early days of his grievously premature retirement. He is making his way peaceably into London's Paddington Station and a bunch of revellers insist he joins them for some late-night champagne.

No, he explains politely, he can't do it. If he misses the last train there is a very good chance Wales might not open in the morning. He has the key, you see.

Now, there are at least half a dozen candidates for such an honour as Wales move into town like a brilliant, youthful, insurgent army and set up camp in the shadow of the All Black fortress of Eden Park.

John is still revered for his sensational journey across this land as the shooting star of the Lions of 1971 – he was slim and luminous and he took the game to uncharted places. No one has yet accused Jamie Roberts of being slim or quite luminous, but he and his team-mates have done something more than provoke a fleeting recollection of a compatriot who had the genius – and the nerve – to believe he could conquer all of rugby.

They have created a new sense of the Welsh game, one that has emerged so long after the meaning of John and Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett and Mervyn Davies had become so encrusted by so much dead time that a rugby man as substantial as Ieuan Evans not so long ago worried publicly that as you could no longer whistle down a mineshaft for a ready-made superstar, it was probably futile to widen the search.

Where were the new boys of brilliance and rugby ambition? Wasting their time down at the video arcade, he speculated bleakly.

Now it seems they were merely biding their time. Evans, the great wing, voiced his fears around the time one leading Kiwi newspaper pundit, for whom bringing down the stones from the top of the mountain is not so much a professional calling as a religious obligation, ridiculed the Welsh game. He said the nation of Barry John had come to play the rugby of village idiots.

Now Welsh rugby, albeit a new outcrop of it shaped by former All Black Warren Gatland and his defensive guru, one of the least tranquillised Englishmen alive, Shaun Edwards, has been voted into an entirely different category. The village idiots might just inherit the rugby world.

Certainly, Andrew Mehrtens – the greatest points hoarder in the history of New Zealand rugby until Daniel Carter came along – believes Wales have sufficient momentum to reach the final against the All Blacks or Australia. The French may have found an old, beautiful thread of natural instinct in ejecting a careworn, inadequate England, but Mehrtens argues that when Wales fought the now fallen World champions South Africa to a near standstill in a pool game, and then dismantled Ireland, they were doing something that ran deeper than merely hitting a vein of form.

They were working along lines of certainty, which persuades him to say: "Stick your cash on Wales to get into the final. Their game with France should be monumental, but I think the Welsh have got the gist of the tournament and their form will continue.

"They look to be more consistent and are working through the phases nicely so they can manipulate defences. Of course, the French have their magic but I don't see them getting the same opportunities that England offered."

If England died by a thousand pinpricks here, with so many of them self-inflicted, it is hard to know which was the more devastating epilogue to their hellish tournament – Mehrtens' curt dismissal or the sight of a bedraggled Manu Tuilagi being led away from the ferry dockside by police after he had jumped into the harbour.

Former England captain Will Carling says that he too would have been inclined to dive overboard had he been trapped in the English nightmare for so long. It is a cruel joke but then nothing could have been more cutting to England's pride than the manner of yesterday's welcome to the Welsh.

The scorn heaped upon Martin Johnson's departed team has been converted into respect for an effort filled with what is being hailed as competitive integrity of an extremely high order.

The busker unfurled his dragon flag and the rugby cognoscenti are building towards an extraordinary tribute.

It is the acknowledgement that a young, unheralded team has shown the means not only to enliven this World Cup but, just possibly, take hold of it.

A few weeks ago this would have been the purest fantasy. Now it is no more than the registering of a few realities. The most significant one is that Wales may be a young side but also one that has absorbed the most profound of sports wisdom. It is the understanding that success is always best grounded in a sound grasp of what you do best.

The Welsh wore down the Irish with the force of Roberts through the middle, a driving head of immense strength, and always with the implicit threat of a George North or a Shane Williams and the stirring leadership of 23-year-old captain and loose forward Sam Warburton. Mike Phillips, the big and clever scrum-half, has been producing some new levels of authority.

Witheringly effective defence also helped.

Neil Jenkins, who lived through some of the most haunting days of the Welsh decline as a record compiler of kicking points and is now one of the coaches, has a look of wonder in his eyes as a media frenzy takes hold of the team's hotel. "It's Welsh rugby for you, up and down, but definitely some great things have been achieved here. It's been a very solid effort and if things are going crazy back home, everyone here is keeping his feet on the ground."

No, this isn't a champagne crew. They don't make bubbles, only a steady pressure on their opponents. Such consistency of purpose has been matched only by the team they couldn't quite beat in the pool action, the departed Boks. Australia performed some of the most outrageous larceny ever seen on a sports field when they crept through to the semi-final with the now strained and injury-dislocated New Zealand.

It is an opportunity which can only hasten the Welsh pulse. Yes, the French may have reanointed themselves with old subtleties, but then how will they like a young team who are busy at the work of building their own mystique? They are attempting to shape it around heads as composed as the one owned by the prodigiously calm young fly-half Rhys Priestland, who has come so late but with such natural authority into the heart of the team.

Maybe if, back in Wales, they are already cutting a key for such a character they can at least claim they have not been without serious encouragement. No one in Auckland is likely to pick too much of an argument.