James Lawton: Wales are too strong not to bounce back from heartache of their missed final fling


Pale evening sunshine at Eden Park and for Wales, whatever they say and however nobly, bleached-out ambition.

A week ago they trained here for the game of their lives and they did it beautifully with sleek movement and immaculate handling. Last night they put in a similar performance at the great fortress but for what?

Not for glory, you don't have to be too jaded to say, but to help the International Rugby Board squeeze out the last dollar from this seventh World Cup.

An old American politician once said that the office of vice-president wasn't worth a jug of cold spit. So what value do we put on today's third-place game against Australia in the shadow of Sunday's All Blacks-French final?

If you are a bunch of young Welsh rugby players who had given so much to this tournament before the cruel ejection by a France almost completely outplayed for an hour despite a man advantage, if you have told yourself in all the sorrow of it that this is the start of something rather than the end, the answer is surprisingly positive.

Stephen Jones, the winner of 103 caps who may well be on duty for the last time when he understudies James Hook and will never forget that his potentially match-winning conversion hit a French post, brings the message from his young team-mates.

He is accompanied by Robin McBryde, the forwards coach who played 37 times for Wales as a ferocious scrummaging hooker who also won the Wales Strongest Man contest, a worthy prelude to the honour of becoming Grand Sword Bearer of the Welsh National Eisteddfod.

Both men, Jones 33, McBryde 41, say they have come not to bury a meaningless match but to praise some exceptional young men who are a credit to both their nation and their sport.

Wales, so broken at the final whistle of the semi-final when they had come so close to wiping out the disadvantage of losing their inspirational, 23-year-old captain Sam Warburton to a red card which some will always see as a crass, doctrinaire excess, were sent away to heal their wounds for two days.

The coaches awaited their return to duty with the keenest interest. Would there be evidence that they had slid down from the levels of application and discipline that had mocked the dysfunctional England campaign? Would some recidivist forward admit to having driven a golf buggy on to a motorway? No, they came back to finish a job the best way they could.

Now Jones, who because of the force of the new Wales, and the precocious maturity of Rhys Priestland, has been required to operate mostly in the margins of the campaign, is happy to be their spokesman.

"Everyone agrees," he says, "that we must do everything to finish a good campaign on a high note – not being in the final is a massive disappointment but in sport you have to carry all your thoughts about pain and disappointment and what might have been away from the ground, go through it and then know you have to move on. This has happened with Wales – it hasn't been forgotten that we are still involved in a World Cup, we are playing an Australian team we respect highly and that whatever the situation it will always be an honour to put on the Welsh jersey."

It may be a little too good to be true of professional sportsmen operating in the second decade of the 21st century but then McBryde, the war-like Druid, makes the point that the qualities that made the first impact, which brought a deeply impressive opening statement in the one-point loss to reigning champions South Africa, and then the overwhelming of Ireland in the quarter-final, were never going to be so easily discarded. Not by a team which had been so excited by all the evidence of its own nascent power.

McBryde says: "When we lost the semi-final we were in uncharted waters. All the coaches wondered how the boys were going to handle it. We gave them a couple of days off and wondered how they would turn up on Tuesday. Well, it's been impressive and we have said how focused they have been in their work, backing it up on the field just now. No balls down, good communication. It's been very good to see how they put what happened last week to bed."

For McBryde the deepest excitement lies in the possibility that young men like Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts and the hushed but brilliant Toby Faletau have cleaned up, as though it were a loose ball at some endless breakdown, one of the most enduring flaws in a Welsh game that was once so naturally filled with confidence. Maybe the young ones have blasted away, by sheer force of competitive intensity, the old habit of allowing defeat to become not a single reverse but a reason to stop believing.

"Maybe it's a bit different now to Wales teams in the past when they have suffered defeats and not come back strongly," says McBryde. "Maybe in the past we haven't given up the ghost but said, 'We've done enough' – and gone back in our shells. This lot of players just don't think like that. They realise they've made a bit of history and they want to push on. If anything is likely to suffer in this situation it is the mood of the older players who maybe realise their chances have gone. Certainly, the younger ones are saying that they want to get up for this latest battle, that it is just another game that has to be won."

Jones might be counted among the victims of age who suffered most when his kick bounced off the post and he didn't get in range to drop a goal and James Hook missed two kickable penalties, but he insists he will be as keen to win tonight as any of the young marauders. "We have a responsibility here. We want to be successful against a good Australian team, we want to beat them in the southern hemisphere. We also have the perspective of motivation and a determination to keep going in the right direction.

"A lot of ground has been gained and no one wants to give it up. So much effort has been put in and Sam Warburton has led with a great example. It's not easy being young and leading a World Cup team on and off the field. He set himself a big challenge and he's been world-class. We have to build on this. You have to pick yourself up in sport. You have to set yourself targets and there are plenty of them tomorrow night."

One of them is Faletau's switch to open-side flanker in the absence of Warburton and his challenge is to prove himself still again – this time against the much celebrated Australian David Pocock.

Everyone who has played alongside him fancies his chances not only of matching the starry Pocock but moving another large stride into the elite of the game. There is also the small matter of beating an Australian team for only the third time since the old glory of a third place in the 1987 World Cup, both the triumphs coming in Cardiff.

Jones is asked if he thinks this new, strong, young Wales can live with Australian pace and flair in the backfield. "Yes, it is something I think they can cope with, oh yes."

He says that he is going back to the regions now and will try to do his best for the Scarlets, adding: "If I get the chance to put on the Welsh jersey again it would be fantastic." It would also be rather unlikely. Stephen Jones sounds like a proud Welshman who has seen the future – and that it is an extremely crowded place.


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