Wales powered by the confidence of youth

Shane Williams impressed by coolness of the new generation as Welsh prepare to face the French. By Chris Hewett in Auckland
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The Independent Online

Wales are in a special place ahead of this Saturday's semi-final with France: super-fit as a result of the unprecedentedly tough conditioning regime imposed on them at a training camp in Poland during the summer, and every bit as confident, thanks largely to the astonishing impact made by a handful of youngsters.

The likes of wing George North, outside-half Rhys Priestland, No 8 Toby Faletau and brilliant captain Sam Warburton (right) genuinely believe they can reach a first World Cup final by beating opponents as likely to discombobulate themselves as they are to bamboozle the opposition.

In every corner of New Zealand, there are hardened rugby folk who would love to see Warburton's side shooting for the golden pot at Eden Park in 12 days' time. Wales have captured hearts and minds with their exhilarating brains-and-balls rugby.

In some ways, it is a style created in the image of Shane Williams, the impish little twinkle-toed wing who has come to define a uniquely Welsh approach to attacking opponents from any and every part of the field. Yet as Williams acknowledged yesterday, he and his fellow oldies – the maestro from the Amman Valley is 34 now – are not the ones leading this surge, and he has been as taken aback as anyone by the contributions of what might have been labelled the "brat pack" had there been anything brattish about them.

"Do I recognise anything of my young self in them? I don't recognise anything at all," he said. "These boys are far more prepared for the challenges we've faced and the experiences we've had in this tournament than I would have been at their age. I couldn't have taken the pressure the way they've taken it, that's for sure. I wouldn't have had a clue.

"When I talk to Stephen [Jones, the long-serving outside-half from down Llanelli way] about this, we both say how amazed we are at what they've brought, how cool and calm they've been. They've been a breath of fresh air."

Four years ago in France, Williams ventured the opinion that, on the basis of talent alone, Wales had the players to lay claim to the Webb Ellis Trophy. As it turned out, they lost a thrilling game against Fiji in Nantes and were obliged to push off home before the start of the knockout stage. "When I said the same thing before the start of this competition, I was almost laughed at," he said. "Now, while we're very clear that we can't get ahead of ourselves, we just want to reach this cup final and win it. The youngsters certainly see it that way. They don't give a monkey's about records, about previous scorelines or previous World Cups."

"The training we did during the summer was the toughest I've experienced," he added. "That's why we haven't drunk ourselves silly. We've been pretty switched on."

In the early build-up to the French match, both Priestland and lock Luke Charteris are nursing shoulder injuries, but both are expected to be fit.