Wales' journey to World Cup contenders
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Wales’ 20-11 victory over South Africa have finally made the world realize that they have a solid chance of claiming the 2019 World Cup trophy.
Wales have entered uncharted territory.
Victory against South Africa on Saturday was the ninth in a row for Warren Gatland’s side, securing a first-ever November clean-sweep and extending the team’s longest winning streak of the current millennium.
That they achieved that with their most assured performance of November meant that despite a suspected ACL injury picked up by Ellis Jenkins late on, the bars around St Mary Street filled up with a feeling not usually associated with Cardiff at this time of year: optimism.
For Wales supporters, these are heady days. Amidst the euphoria of a fourth successive defeat of the Springboks, thoughts inevitably raced towards the Six Nations and home games against both England and Ireland.
Winning, as unlikely try-scoring hero Tomas Francis noted after the game, is a habit and entering Gatland’s final year in charge it seems his team has picked up the knack at an opportune time.
There was a sense around the Principality Stadium that this was the type of contest Wales would most likely have lost in previous years. It could be argued too that this was a team that would not have been picked.
Unable to call on Leigh Halfpenny as the fullback continues to battle concussion symptoms, Gatland was bold.
He could have shifted Gareth Anscombe into the back three and rewarded Dan Biggar for his man-of-the-match performance against Tonga with a start at 10, but that would not have chimed with what has been a November of expansion as well as triumph.
Picking Liam Williams to replace Halfpenny, and retaining Anscombe at flyhalf, suggested that Wales wanted to start quickly against the Springboks.
And Gatland was rewarded for being brave. Williams was unable to regather his ninth-minute up-and-under but as he tussled with RG Snyman the ball broke into the arms of the galloping Alun Wyn Jones and the attack that would ultimately lead to Francis’ first Test try was set in motion.
It would not take long for the Saracens man to have a more direct impact on proceedings as a wonderfully looped pass from Anscombe found him in space and he stepped inside Siya Kolisi to score.
The South African defence, much like BBC commentator Eddie Butler, had been sucked in by the presence of George North and were left flat-footed as Anscombe used him as a decoy.
The try highlighted the advantage of having a world-class finisher at fullback but this was not a vintage all-round display from Williams. He was caught in possession as Elton Jantjies narrowed the Springbok deficit to just three points and then produced a nervy wayward clearance with his side leading by six.
On the whole, though, there were enough positive signs, especially in his early link-up play with Anscombe and North, to suggest that Wales should stick with him at full-back when they open their Six Nations campaign against France in Paris.
Williams brought up his half-century of Wales caps against Tonga seven days previously but this was only his 21st appearance for his country in the number 15 shirt and fourth against a southern hemisphere nation in that position.
This month has shown what can be achieved when faith is shown in players. Nicky Smith and Adam Beard, for example, were both excellent against South Africa while Anscombe has grown into the 10 shirt.
One moment early in the second half perhaps best encapsulated the potential dividends that sticking with Williams at 15 could reap. Anscombe sent a crossfield kick high towards the right touchline where North rose to knock down for his former Scarlets team-mate.
Williams, in turn, got an offload away to Jonathan Davies in support and for a split second, it looked as though Wales were about to score a try for the ages. Unfortunately for the hosts, the pass to Davies had drifted forward but the invention and intent were clear.
Halfpenny has, of course, done nothing wrong and remains one of the best defensive full-backs in the world. He is also metronomic from the kicking tee but Anscombe – albeit having struck the post with a fairly routine effort on Saturday – and Biggar are proven goalkickers.
It will take a run of games and some faith from the coaching team but if Wales want to play a more expansive game against the bigger nations then Williams is their man.
However Gatland decides to line up in Paris on February 1, though, it is a testament to the work that he, his coaches and the players have done that there is now genuine depth in every position.
There will not be a crossed word between Halfpenny and Williams, either. This is a squad whose success has been built on camaraderie.
That was evident as all 22 players consoled their stricken teammate, Jenkins, as he lay prone on a stretcher at the full-time whistle and was on display last week as Gatland revealed the squad helped to raise £24,000 at a charity evening.
“We’ve got a good group of players at the moment who the Welsh public should be really proud of,” Gatland said.
“The way they conduct themselves, both on and off the field and the way they’ve prepared in this campaign and trained, they’ve been absolutely outstanding,”