Fearlessness of youth and hard yards fire Wales to new heights

Ireland 10 Wales 22: Brilliant Welsh campaign leads All Blacks to consider Gatland as Henry's successor

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The Independent Online

It is difficult to judge who has the harder task this week, between the Welsh Rugby Union hoping to avert the All Blacks' eyes from their head coach or Warren Gatland attempting to keep a lid on the expectation building around his young team.

Wales are already in uncharted territor – on Saturday, they will play France in their first World Cup semi-final appearance since 1987, following their comprehensive 22-10 victory over their much-heralded Irish opponents. Plans are already in the pipeline to screen that game inside Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, such is the fever gripping a country starved of World Cup success. Wales may have so far snuck under the radar in New Zealand, quietly going about their business with ruthless efficiency, but there is little chance of keeping anything quiet after their impressive win over Ireland.

Yesterday's headlines in the New Zealand papers pushed Gatland, a Waikato native, as the frontrunner to succeed Graham Henry, who is expected to stand down as head coach of the All Blacks after the World Cup. Should New Zealand lift the Webb Ellis Cup, Henry's assistant, Steve Hansen, who coached Wales at the 2003 World Cup, would be the favourite to take the reins but there are many who believe Gatland is stealing the inside running with this audition in his homeland.

New Zealand great Graham Mourie, a member of the NZRFU board, has already hinted the All Blacks may be willing to bend the rules to accommodate a coach, such as Gatland, who is not currently working in New Zealand. That prompted WRU chief executive, Roger Lewis, to warn others to keep away, insisting he had a "watertight" contract with the former New Zealand hooker until 2015, but even the most stubborn obstacles can collapse under the right kind of pressure.

Gatland's Wales have managed to find a silken touch to wrap around their brute force front. His young charges executed Gatland's gameplan to the letter, dissecting Ireland's piece by piece until there was little left but a green rabble that were ripe for the picking.

The rest of the world may have finally sat up and taken notice but the coach believes these performances were born from a summer of hard graft that included 5am training sessions, vomit-inducing fitness drills and -140-degree cryotherapy chambers.

"I felt during the warm-up games that we were going to have a good tournament. As an international coach, you are relying on the players avoiding injury, you get no preparation time," Gatland said. "Then you can lose a couple of games when you are criticised and you get the sack. I don't think you should be judged on that.

"You judge yourself on having the opportunity to prepare the team properly as you will with a club side.

"I think I've demonstrated that in the past, whether it was with Wasps or Waikato, and now with Wales. Give me a chance to prepare for a few months and I think I can make a bit of a difference."

Gatland has been brave with his selection, clearing the decks of any baggage and showing a willingness to stake his reputation on kids who play with unashamed confidence and are untainted by previous failures. Welsh players past have shuddered at the mere mention of Fiji and Samoa, but reputations mean nothing to these youngsters at this World Cup, including those of the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, who were left flailing to find an answer as Ireland unravelled.

The British Lions back row of Ryan Jones, Andy Powell and Martyn Williams have been ousted and James Hook was left on the bench, while Stephen Jones and Lee Byrne were left out altogether. In their places, players unknown outside of domestic rugby – Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau, Sam Warburton, Rhys Priestland and George North – none of whom were born when Wales last reached the semi-finals.

There has been a slice of luck on the way. Six foot 4in wings, such as North, come along very rarely and Priestland was thrown into the deep end, five minutes before kick-off at Twickenham in August after Jones pulled up with a calf strain, and duly swam. An injection of youth has galvanised those older heads around, veterans of Grand Slam campaigns and Lions tours, now playing with renewed enthusiasm.

"We have experienced heads like Shane Williams, Mike Phillips and Gethin Jenkins, who have played a lot of places in world rugby but are taking their game to another level," attack coach Rob Howley said.

Wales would likely have preferred to face the known quantity of England in Auckland, having beaten them four times in the past four years, rather than the unpredictable French, who have won their last three encounters. However, the underlying message from the management will be to keep faith with the style of rugby that has served the side so well.

"We have youth and exuberance and this side wants to express themselves. These boys have worked particularly hard and there's no fear there," Howley said. "We now have an opportunity and a dream which we want to continue. It's about seizing upon the opportunity that is in front of them."

Howley knows only too well the hysteria back home that will accompany these results, given the way Welsh rugby has mirrored the peaks and troughs of the country's geology.

"I'm sure Wales is going mad at this moment in time," he said. "The fans have been through some tough times with us and I'm sure they, like us, are looking forward to Saturday.

"We haven't won anything, so our feet are firmly on the ground. We're under no illusion as to how good this French side are but we have confidence and momentum."

Scorers: Ireland: Try Earls. Penalty O'Gara. Conversion O'Gara. Wales: Tries Williams, Phillips, Davies. Penalty Halfpenny. Conversions Priestland 2.

Ireland R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, K Earls (A Trimble, 70); R O'Gara (J Sexton, 55), C Murray (E Reddan, 55); C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, S Ferris (D Ryan, 75), J Heaslip (D Leamy, 75), S O'Brien.

Wales L Halfpenny; G North, J Davies, J Roberts, Shane Williams; R Priestland (J Hook, 77), M Phillips; G Jenkins, H Bennett, A Jones, L Charteris (B Davies, 40), A W Jones, D Lydiate, T Faletau, S Warburton (capt).

Referee C Joubert (South Africa).

Four stars of the weekend: Those that led the way for semi-finalists

By James Corrigan

Mike Phillips, Wales

Enjoyed perhaps his finest match in a red shirt. Phillips' try came at a vital moment and reminded many of Gareth Edwards, because of the degree of difficulty, strength and opportunism. His presence is like having another back-rower in defence and in offence Phillips chose his option perfectly. Looked as good as he thinks he is.

Imanol Harinordoquy, France

What went through Marc Lièvremont's mind when he dropped the mighty No 8? Whatever it was, it wasn't anything resembling rugby sense. As good as Louis Picamoles might be, Harinordoquy was born for the big occasion, doing to England exactly what they intended to do to the French. Strong powerful running, immense in the tackle, a total handful.

David Pocock, Australia

Australia had no right to beat the world champions and wouldn't have come close but for Pocock producing his finest magpie impression. No doubt benefited from Heinrich Brussow's early exit, but the manner in which the young Wallaby openside commanded the breakdown thereafter verged on the ridiculous, if not the illegal. Needs his fellow forwards to step up.

Piri Weepu, New Zealand

No Dan Carter, so it fell on the scrum-half's shoulders to take over the kicking duties and what a job he did. Seven successful penalties pulled the All Blacks out of a nervy corner and afforded them the freedom to run in their late tries. Maybe there are better No 9s around but the host country is relying on Weepu now. Yesterday he proved he can carry the burden.