If it is true to say that folk in New Zealand thought little of England rugby players as a breed before the thoroughly rotten "Auckland Four" tour of 2008, had even less time for them after that trip and positively loathe them now – red-rose behavioural issues in the South Island are still playing very big on this side of the Cook Strait – they have at least had cause to give them due consideration as a half-decent team. The Celts, meanwhile, do not register so much as a blip on the All Black nation's radar. Or rather, they didn't until they started tripping the light fantastic in the pool stage of this tournament.
Suddenly, things look very different for Ireland and Wales, if not for Scotland, who have already left for home after losing tight matches against Argentina and England by a combined margin of five points – or, in other words, a single try. The Irish victory over Australia here in Auckland two and a half weeks ago upset the applecart completely and the southern hemisphere types, who rather thought they would have this competition to themselves, are still getting their heads around the consequences. Indeed, it is fair to say that no one, not even the All Blacks themselves, will relish a stand-up scrap with Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and company if the green-shirted hordes are still blowing a hoolie at the back end of this jamboree.
Wales, meanwhile, can already point to three significant achievements, none of which seemed on the cards when this tournament began early last month. By pushing South Africa, the reigning champions, unbelievably hard in the opening match and then finding a way past a supremely perilous Samoan team – if you're not quite sure how potent the men from the South Seas were, ask the Springboks – the Red Dragonhood surpassed the expectations of their own followers. Yet perhaps the most striking performance was the one-way traffic 66-0 victory over Fiji last weekend. True, the Fijians were the most disappointing team of the entire pool stage: it was as though the organisational hassle caused by their own military government, together with the usual complications over player availability, ensured they were beaten before kick-off. But Wales have rarely been so ruthless in denying suckers an even break. Their previous two results against that opposition? Defeat at the last World Cup in France and a draw at home in Cardiff.
And now the two most passionate Celtic rugby nations, both of whom are playing at a rare old pace, will meet in a quarter-final in Wellington that has genuinely captured the imagination of local supporters used to watching Ma'a Nonu and Cory Jane strut their stuff at the stadium nicknamed the "Cake Tin" – to the extent that the tie is pretty much a sell-out, despite the premium ticket prices now being charged by the World Cup organisers. Why the heavy interest? Put it down to style. Ireland have played some attractive stuff, Wales are producing rugby that is drop-dead beautiful. By comparison, the stuff turned out by England looks like the back end of a bus. And a slow bus, at that.
It is almost as if Wales have said to themselves: "This is a southern hemisphere competition, so let's get with the zeitgeist." This was always a possibility, given the presence of an All Black, albeit an All Black hooker, as head honcho. Warren Gatland has had his difficult moments since being appointed, at very considerable expense to the Welsh rugby exchequer, a couple of months or so after the last World Cup, from which the team had disappeared before the start of the knock-out phase. He peaked early with a Six Nations Grand Slam, but soon found himself hurting in the way previously experienced by two of his New Zealand countrymen, Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, during their time in charge in the Principality. Henry thought that the pressure of public expectation was as great as anywhere in the world, with added unpleasantness. There have been times when Gatland has agreed wholeheartedly with that opinion.
But since the 2009 Lions tour, which was heavily populated by Welsh players and featured Gatland among the back-room staff, there has been a transformation at Test level: a fast-tracking of fresh talent, a toughening up of the forward pack and a renewed commitment to attacking rugby. Some of the old guard – the full-back Lee Byrne, the outside-half Stephen Jones, the flanker Ryan Jones, the No 8 Andrew Powell – are here on active duty, but have been marginalised; others – the scrum-half Dwayne Peel, the lock Ian Gough, the loose-forward Jonathan Thomas, the marvellous but ancient breakaway Martyn Williams – have been cast aside. Among the principal movers and shakers now are George North, the 19-year-old wing; Rhys Priestland, the new man at No 10; Toby Faletau, the Tongan-born No 8; and Sam Warburton, recently appointed captain on the strength of his brilliant contributions from the open side of the scrum.
Even if Wales lose this weekend, Gatland will fly back to Heathrow – or, more likely, simply drive a few dozen miles north from Wellington and enjoy a month's quality rest and recuperation at his holiday home on the Waikato coast – with his reputation enhanced, for it is he who has made the bold calls in selection. Declan Kidney, his opposite number with Ireland, has installed Conor Murray, the little-known Munsterman, as his premier No 9; Martin Johnson, the England manager, has given the young Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi his beetle-browed blessing. But Gatland has been more imaginative, more courageous, more prepared to say "to hell with it" and take a punt. He has been rewarded by a sudden, thrilling outpouring of youthful "can do" spirit, and he is revelling in it.
Before the first of the World Cup warm-up matches against England, at Twickenham in August, the race for the outside-half berth was of the two-horse variety: Stephen Jones was the safe option, James Hook the adventurous one. Hook was not involved that day, while Jones twanged a muscle ahead of kick-off. Enter Priestland. Wales lost the game narrowly, but Gatland was so impressed with the Johnny-come-lately's efforts in the pivot position that he was heard to say afterwards: "I now have to go back and think really seriously about my best No 10 might be." And having thought, he decided to go for broke and stick with the newcomer.
It is this kind of original thinking, this impatience with the comfortable and the conservative, that lays at the heart of the Welsh resurgence. Of course, the return to form and fitness of the two Lions props, Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, makes a mighty difference – every coat of many colours needs a base shade of grey – and the devastation currently being wreaked in midfield by a rejuvenated Jamie Roberts helps no end. But the European players being spoken of here, leaving aside a certain Mr Tindall for reasons that have nothing to do with rugby, are not O'Driscoll or O'Connell ... or even Jonny Wilkinson. They are North and Priestland and Warburton. If they are still being talked of a week from now, they will fancy their chances of making a World Cup final at their first attempt.
Bale sends best to old pal
Gareth Bale, Welsh footballer of the round-ball variety, has sent a good luck message to his old friend, the Wales rugby captain Sam Warburton, with whom he went to school in Cardiff. "I wrote Sam a message not so long ago," said the Tottenham winger, who is preparing to face Switzerland tomorrow. "It's great for him to be captain and playing at the World Cup, where Wales are doing great, so I wish him and Wales all the best. I'm a proud Welshman and it will be great if they can beat Ireland." The pair were once team-mates in the football side at Whitchurch High School.Reuse content