On Saturday, at 9am our time, some 45,000 people including myself will gather in Wales’ cathedral of rugby, the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. We will be going to watch a game of rugby, which is being played 12,000 miles away, but shown on giant screens to the expectant faithful.
Wales will be playing France in the semi finals of the rugby World cup. Wales have reached the semi finals before, in the inaugural World cup of 1987. In fact, although we lost that semi final to New Zealand, who went on to win their one and only World cup, Wales beat Australia in the 3rd place play off to finish a very respectable 3rd.
But, rugby has changed a great deal since 1987. In 1995 the game went professional, so today the fitness levels and strength of the players is way beyond anything in the amateur era. Since 1987 Wales have not got beyond the quarter finals, and in the last World cup in 2007 they got dumped out at the group stage by Fiji.
I think it’s fair to say that almost no one expected Wales to light up this year’s World cup in the way that they have. Wales have won two Grand Slams in the last 10 years, in 2005 and 2008. But, apart from these two years, most of the last 24 years have been ones of disappointment with very little success.
For someone who grew up watching the Wales team of the 1970s, 24 or more years of disappointment has not been easy. In the 1970s Wales won the Grand Slam (when a team beats all the other nations in the championship) on 3 occasions, 1971, 1976 and 1978. In addition, Wales won the Triple Crown (when a team beats the other nations in the British Isles) on 5 occasions, in 1971, 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979. We dominated Northern Hemisphere rugby, and the only country we failed to beat during that Golden Era was New Zealand.
Certainly our performances since our Grand Slam of 2008 had not suggested we would reach this year’s semi finals. Less than a year ago we struggled to draw with Fiji at home in Cardiff. We only beat Scotland, Ireland and Italy in this year’s 6 Nations, finishing 4th overall. But, a hint of improvement was there when we beat England and Argentina in 2 warm up games in August.
Our first match in this World cup was against South Africa, who won it for the 2nd time in 2007. Wales played superbly, and were very unlucky to lose by the narrowest of margins, 17-16. Add to this a kick by James Hook which looked like it had gone over but was not given, and Wales came out of the game feeling they could and should have won.
Wales’ 2nd pool match was against Samoa. Wales have lost to Samoa in the World cups of 1991 and 1999. But, on this occasion, Wales won 17-10. We then thrashed minnows Namibia 81-7, before facing our 2007 nemeses Fiji in the last match of the pool stage. Wales beat Fiji 66-0, a result which made most Wales fans realise just how much better we are than 4 years ago.
After Ireland’s surprising defeat of Australia in their group match, Wales found themselves facing their Celtic cousins in last Saturday’s quarter final. Ireland went into the match slight favourites, having won all their 4 group stage matches. However, Wales scored a try in the first few minutes, and never looked like losing. Wales eventually won 22-10, scoring 3 tries to Ireland’s 1.
With the excellent play Wales have shown so far, expectations are high for Saturday. Add to this France’s dire performances (they even lost to Tonga in the group stages), and many fans of Welsh rugby imagine we are already in the final. Thankfully, our coaches and players will not be getting as carried away as the Welsh fans. France managed a decent display against a very poor England in their quarter final, so as always with France one never knows. On their day the French can play the most sublime rugby, and when they do no one can touch them, not even New Zealand. But France are just as likely to put in the sort of abject performance as they did against Tonga.
The last time Wales had such a serious repulsion to make of the French was in 1797, when the last foreign invasion of Britain took place at Carreg Wastad, some 4-5 miles from where I went to school.