Head coach Warren Gatland says “hard work” is responsible for Wales turning crisis into joy as his team became the first side to reach the Rugby World Cup knock-out stages following a record win over Australia.
Just over six months ago, Welsh rugby was in a dark place as uncertainty over a deal between the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and its regional clubs left players worrying about their futures.
A sexism and racism scandal saw WRU chairman Steve Phillips resign while the players threatened to go on strike ahead of their Six Nations match against England.
Senior stalwarts such as Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb retired just months before the World Cup began.
But now Wales are in dreamland after thrashing Australia 40-6 in Pool C to book their quarter-finals spot.
“There was a lot of things going on before the Six Nations,” said Gatland, who added that he had needed to understand the players’ “frustrations… in terms of insecurity and the future”.
But after sitting back and letting “things unfold” — with the WRU and Welsh regions reaching a six-year deal deal to ensure the financial security of the sport in the country — Gatland was finally able to get to work on fixing a misfiring side.
Wales finished fifth in three of the last four Six Nations tournaments and in 2022 lost at home to Italy for the first time ever and were beaten by Georgia, also for the first time.
“We’re proud of the fact that the success has been based on hard work and punching above our weight, and you get confidence from that and from results like tonight,” said Gatland after the thumping of Australia in Lyon.
“You build momentum which makes us even more dangerous going forward.”
Clubs need to ‘step up’
In contrast to Wales, Australia remain in turmoil.
Like Wales, they fired their coach at the end of last year and brought back a veteran legend to the fold — Gatland took over Wales in December and Eddie Jones returned to the Wallabies in January.
But while Gatland has started to turn things around, Jones’s Australia are getting worse.
New Zealander Gatland believes the path to sustained success for the national team is the same in both countries, and it begins at club level.
Australia’s clubs have been unable to match the results and performances of the New Zealand contingent in Super Rugby, while the Welsh regions are no match for the Irish provinces in the United Rugby Championship (URC).
“Wales isn’t really much different to Australia. We’ve got regional teams that need to step up and perform and get better and the same thing is for the Super Rugby sides in Australia,” said Gatland.
“If you can get performances, results, if you can get to the quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals then that has a huge positive impact on the national team in terms of players coming in with a bit of a spring in their step and confidence.
“We’ve definitely got to do that in Wales. We need to start making sure that our regional teams start making quarter-finals, semi-finals in the URC and hopefully in Europe.”
But Gatland believes it will only be through greater cohesion and a common plan between the governing body and the clubs that Wales and Australia will be able to match the success of teams like New Zealand, South Africa, England, France and Ireland on the highest stage.
“If we can do that, then we can probably be a lot more successful in club rugby,” he said.
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