In case you hadn’t noticed, or hadn’t been reminded by your Welsh work colleagues, relations or friends, Wales are playing in the semi final of the Rugby World Cup this Saturday. And England are not. The country has suddenly become a sea of red and the proud Welsh are quite rightly making their voices heard. Many even had the temerity to suggest that they wanted England to beat France as they felt Wales would stand a better chance of beating England in the semi final! Can you believe that, Welshmen wanting England to win ?! Surely not!
So what do the English think? Well, there remain a large number who will be wearing berets and eating croissants on Saturday morning but the more enlightened perhaps, through gritted teeth, will be cheering the red dragon and applauding their enterprising play and spirit with a sort of grudging respect.
For those Wasps amongst you, you will probably be reflecting on the Welsh success with a certain amount of pride. After all, Warren Gatland, the Welsh Coach, presided over the most successful era in Wasps’ rugby history with Shaun Edwards, the Welsh Defence Coach, as his first lieutenant and Rob Howley, the Welsh Assistant Coach as the one of the most important Wasps players. All three of them, whilst currently the key leaders and decision makers in the Welsh camp, and ultimately responsible for shaping their team’s destiny, are all fully fledged Wasps legends. Three succesive Premiership titles and two Heineken European Cups in the mid 2000s between them for Wasps tells its own story in what was really the golden era of Wasps rugby, never to be forgotten.
Add to them Prav Mathema, National Medical Performance Manager and John Ashby, Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach, both of whom who held similar roles at Wasps, then you can see how the Wasps related sphere of influence extends even further.
Yet it is more than just the individuals involved, it is the whole philosophy and style of play of the current Welsh team that resembles the Wasps team in their pomp. As they tore into the Irish last weekend with pace, aggression and no little skill, the similarities were all too clear. There was no fear and they had a real sense of togetherness and collective desire.
The great Wasps sides always primed themselves on their fitness levels and peaking at the right time, when it really mattered most. Wales have followed a similar strategy, and it is no coincidence that the current Welsh players are supremely fit and better conditioned than any before. Gruelling outward bounds courses in Poland have certainly played their part in helping to develop the players both physically and mentally for the challenges that lay ahead at this World Cup. Once a certain level of peak fitness has been obtained, they have been able to focus on their core rugby skills and applying them for the full 80 minutes, with no let up. The Irish felt this grip and it tightened as the match went on. The Welsh simply got stronger and stronger and their defence could not be breached.
Defence has been fundamental, and Shaun Edwards is the constant ingredient between the revolutionary Wasps blitz defence of the mid 2000s and the ferocious defence of the Welshmen at this World Cup. Indeed the stats from the Ireland match interestingly reveal that the Irish had more of the ball and spent far longer in the Welsh 22, but other than the one try, they never really looked like breaching the red line of defence. Indeed the Welsh put in 141 tackles compared to 93 from the Irish, yet it was the Welsh who always looked more dangerous with the ball in hand.
As the little wizard Shane Williams dived over to score in the opening minutes, you could picture Josh Lewsey doing the same for Wasps. Similarly, when Mike Phillips spotted an opening and tore away down the blindside to score with a flourish, you had visions of the great Rob Howley himself and when Jonathan Davies bulldozed his way through a gap and then had the pace and strength to score, visions came flooding back of Stuart Abbott scoring for Wasps in his heyday.
If Wales can continue to play with such desire, pace and enthusiasm this Saturday then they have a very real chance of success against the French. And if Gatland, Edwards and Howley are able to impart a little more of that Wasps spirit upon their charges then who knows where it might take them. Allez Wasps! Allez Pays de Galles!
13 Oct 2011