Jonathan Davies: Wales find perfect mix to match the best
Friday 14 October 2011
I feel like a fan again. For the first time in the 30 years I've been involved in rugby as a player and as a broadcaster I am watching my country play with my heart as well as my head.
I love watching this Wales side play; the way they play and the joy with which they play. You can see the camaraderie and the banter flowing through every facet of their rugby. Mix this with confidence and momentum and you have the secret of the sport. Wales have all three, playing an irresistibly simple brand which is based on the belief, both collectively and individually, they won't make mistakes or crack first.
If Wales play like they did against Ireland they'll beat France in tomorrow's World Cup semi-final, I have no doubt. They've improved every game since that opening agoniser against South Africa and I expect this upward curve to continue.
Rhys Priestland's injury is a blow, but originally Warren Gatland intended James Hook to be his No 10. It was only because the young Scarlet performed so impressively – taking the ball up to the line so well, defending so well, managing the game so well – that Gatland thought, "why rock the boat". But to be honest, whoever stepped into his boots, is in for a bit of luxury.
The set-piece is functioning well and there is so much "go forward" with runners like Toby Faletau, Jamie Roberts and the extraordinary George North, that the No 10 will be playing on the front foot. And Hook, with all his attacking abilities, should revel in that scenario.
Plenty has been said about the influence the youngsters have had, with eight of the starting XV being aged 23 or under. I think it's important on a few counts. First off is what it's done for some of the older players. Look at the line-out. For so long the thorn in our side, Huw Bennett is actually throwing the ball in straight – and Luke Charteris is actually catching it. In Wales we're all like "what the hell is going on here?". Amazing!
We've always known we could attack. Always. But for so long we've been trying to attack off bad ball and bad set-piece. No longer it seems. At last the shackles are off.
Then there's the professionalism Sam Warburton and Co have instilled. The professional era arrived in 1995 which means these boys have never known the boozy old amateur days. They have been a credit to Wales, both on and off the pitch. The manner in which they've behaved show they have the respect in their management and trust from their management, which is crucial.
Don't forget this Welsh set-up have had more than their fair share of after-hour embarrassments. But when you're away from home, as a group you react differently. They've gelled and reports I've heard from the camp have revealed there's none of the petty jealousies and destructive infighting of the past. Look at someone like Stephen Jones, a proud player who hasn't been involved, but who my spies tell me has been a superb presence in the squad-room.
Then there's the individuals themselves. I can't think of one who is not playing to his peak. There are a few notes of concern. Hook's goalkicking needs to be sharper than it was against South Africa, while the other stat that rings alarm bells is "the time spent in the opposition 22". Against the Boks, Samoa and Ireland we were outperformed in this area. Yes, our defence has been fantastic courtesy of our defensive line-speed being fantastic, but against the very good teams this could cost us.
But, in truth, the negatives are vastly outnumbered by the positives. We've been through the dark days, been the butt of the jokes, but now it all seems worth it. There's an unwritten rule which says once you've worn a red jersey as a player you never do so as a supporter. I never have. But I'm telling you what. If we win this World Cup I'm going to don a Welsh shirt and go on a month's holiday to New Zealand. And keep it on the entire time. It's the sort of stupid thing a euphoric fan does, isn't it?
1987 was a long, long time ago
Much has been made about the resemblance of this Welsh squad with the Welsh squad I was a member of at the 1987 World Cup. There's only one similarity – the tightness of the unit.
We were a very close bunch when we reached the semis, who wanted to go on together as far as we could in the competition. The resemblance starts and finishes there. This lot think they can win; when we played New Zealand in the semis we knew we had no hope. They were far and away the best. We couldn't match them in physicality or in fitness terms but this Welsh team have no such fears.
Maybe it's professionalism, maybe that trip to Poland really did do wonders, but when they look as if they're down on their knees Wales now have the belief to stand strong and press on. That's a confidence issue as well; they know they have what it takes in their tank.
Here's another difference. When we won our quarter-final we went on the lash for three days on the Gold Coast. Wouldn't happen now. But then, that was the inaugural tournament and there wasn't either the fuss or the social media to burden us. For example, we played our group games in New Zealand and had to fly over to Brisbane for the quarter and semi-finals. When we arrived at customs the Aussie officials said: "Who are you lot and what on earth are you doing here?" We said: "We're the Welsh team and we're playing in the World Cup." They replied: "What Welsh team? What World Cup?"
Well, they sure as hell know now.
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