What a difference a win makes. Last week, Warren Gatland was pondering whether Wales would ever end their run of losses against leading southern hemisphere teams. Now, after beating South Africa, he believes his side are good enough to win the World Cup.
Wales have endured a torrid run of results against rugby’s big three of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, and Saturday’s 12-6 win over the Springboks was the first since 1999 and only their second in the 108-year history of fixtures between the two sides.
In the build-up to the game, Gatland had been questioned about the pressure on him, some even speculating the time had come for him to be replaced. But following Saturday’s historic win he said: “Our focus has always been the World Cup and qualifying out of our group, the pool of death next year. The long-term goal is to win the World Cup and we think we’re good enough to do it.”
Up against them in their so-called pool of death are Australia and England, who also lie in wait as Wales’ first opponents of next year’s Six Nations campaign.
And lock Jake Ball, who established himself as a first-team starter over the autumn Tests, said: “It doesn’t get much bigger than England-Wales, so it will be a hell of a contest, especially given the World Cup group.
“Psychologically, though, we have shown we can compete with these teams, so it proves to us that we can do a job on England as well.”
Both England and Wales have endured mixed autumn campaigns that ended on highs with victories in their last matches against southern hemisphere opponents before the World Cup.
But it is worth factoring in that South Africa were bereft of some of their key players, who had returned to club duty overseas, while their talismanic captain Jean de Villiers left the fray midway through the second half, which effectively enabled Wales to hold on to their advantage.
The acid test for the World Cup, which Gatland has repeatedly told his critics to judge him on, will come in the Six Nations, a tournament Wales have won twice in the past three seasons.
Scrum-half Rhys Webb, who if fit looks a certain starter following his ever-strengthening half-back partnership with Dan Biggar, insisted the latest win would hold the side in good stead going into 2015 and beyond.
“We’ll go back to our regions now and, hopefully, come out firing for the Six Nations,” he said. “We know where we are and we showed against New Zealand we’re capable of competing with these sides. This win has been there waiting for us. We’re just happy to pick it up. It is definitely a good springboard for the Six Nations, finishing on a win as well.”
While South Africa may have been lacking the usual strength in depth – calling on predominantly young, inexperienced players off the bench – it is worth noting that Wales too were not quite at full strength against the Springboks.
George North remains sidelined because of a head injury sustained in the All Blacks game and the front-row duo of Paul James and Richard Hibbard were not available for selection, obliged to return to Bath and Gloucester respectively, with the match having fallen outside the recognised International Rugby Board window for Test matches.
As a result, Webb argued that Wales can only get better in the coming months.
“We’ll learn a lot from this autumn,” he said, “particularly in respect of playing for the full 80 minutes. That’s the big thing for us, playing and concentrating for the whole game. We did that against South Africa and now we will regroup, freshen up a bit and come back into the Six Nations.”
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