Shortly before last weekend's captivating quarter-final with Ireland in Wellington, the Wales head coach Warren Gatland approached the Cardiff-born prop Gethin Jenkins and asked him a simple question, straight from the hip, old front-rower to current front-rower. "Is this the best Welsh team you've ever been a part of, the best of your career?" he enquired. Jenkins, ever the cagey one, looked him in the eye and told him he'd receive an answer once the game was over. Having played his part in a famous victory – a win that set up what many consider to be the biggest match in Red Dragon history – Jenkins made good on his promise. "After that," he said, "I'd have to say 'yes'."
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 wing George North, the outside-half Rhys Priestland, the No 8 Toby Faletau and the brilliant captain Sam Warburton, among others – they 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.
All the top brass, from the chief executive of the governing body Roger Lewis down, are piling into town and claiming every last available hotel room. At home, things have "gone a bit crazy by all accounts" – the words of another Jenkins, the kicking coach and revered outside-half of yore, Neil – and 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. Every World Cup throws up a team everyone can love: Argentina in 2007, to take the most recent example. In this tournament, Wales have captured hearts and minds by playing an exhilarating brand of 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.
"I suppose there are always times at a World Cup when the older guys have to look after the youngsters, but we're helping each other through the competition. 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 been able to bring, how cool and calm they've been. They've been a breath of fresh air. Mind you, when I mix with them – you have to cling on when you're in your thirties, don't you? – they're very different. Different music, different talk, different everything."
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. All they care about is making sure things don't end for us this weekend."
Both Gethin Jenkins and Williams let slip a smile when asked about the difference between the Welsh approach to this tournament – minimal drinking, a collective sing-song now and again, early to bed – and what has become the English way of doing things: late nights, noisy clubs, swallow dives into Auckland harbour and regular conversations with the authorities, be they of the rugby variety or the city police.
"We haven't really had the chance to go out for a big drink," Jenkins explained. "Had there been an opportunity... well, yes, some of us might have taken it: there are a few boys in the squad you have to keep under wraps. But there's a time and a place, isn't there? We've had sensible curfews, so things have been pretty quiet." Williams' take was similar. "The training we did during the summer was the toughest I've experienced," he said. "If you've done all that, it would be a waste to come to a World Cup and drink yourself silly. We've enjoyed the social side of New Zealand, but we've been pretty switched on. We have a job of work to do here."
As they turn their attention to the semi-final – for a while yesterday they were in the same city centre hotel as their French opponents, before the Tricolores upped sticks and moved into the accommodation vacated by the England party – Wales have a couple of injury concerns. Priestland picked up a shoulder injury during the victory over Ireland, as did the elongated lock Luke Charteris, whose tackle count of 16 during the first half in Wellington may have set a new mark for a second-row forward. At this stage, both men are expected to be fit for selection.
Young Dragons lighting the fire
George North (Scarlets, 19) The Scarlets wing has had a thrilling start to his international career, his physicality earning comparisons with the great Jonah Lomu.
Sam Warburton (Blues, 23) Entrusted with the captaincy at the age of 22, Warburton's maturity, as well his excellence as an openside flanker has impressed many so far.
Toby Faletau (Dragons, 20) Tongan-born flanker only made his Wales debut in June. He scored a try against South Africa in Wellington.
Rhys Priestland (Scarlets, 24) Young fly-half outplayed his more experienced Irish counterpart Ronan O'Gara in Saturday's quarter-final.Reuse content