AUCKLAND: Wales bring form, confidence and a fearless attitude to the first rugby World Cup semi-final against France at Eden Park on Saturday.
A generation of Welsh players struggled in the shadow of the team who ruled Europe in the 1970s and as recently as last November the national team were assailed on all sides when they drew 16-16 with Fiji.
This year, Fiji, who eliminated Wales from the 2007 World Cup, were drawn in Wales’ group again along with defending champions South Africa and Samoa, who upset Wales in the 1991 World Cup and again eight years later.
Pessimists feared the Welsh could even fail to advance from the group stages. However, instead of faltering under the pressure they have flourished.
They lost by a point to South Africa in a match they should have won and then swept Samoa and Fiji aside to set up a quarter-final against Ireland.
Last weekend’s 22-10 victory over Ireland, who defeated Australia in the pool stages, revealed a team hitting their peak with a tough forward pack setting a platform for a backline combining brute strength with old-fashioned Welsh subtlety and invention.
One major plus for Wales has been the belated return to form of a group of players who performed so well in a losing Lions series in South Africa two years ago and who now form the spine of the Welsh side.
Jamie Roberts, bristling with muscular authority and aggression has been the outstanding centre of the tournament.
Mike Phillips is once again a commanding figure at scrumhalf, Alun Wyn Jones is back to his best in the second row and Adam Jones has shown why he is regarded as one of the most skilled tighthead props in the game.
Even the loss of flyhalf Rhys Priestland with an injured left shoulder sustained in the Ireland match will not weaken Wales.
His replacement James Hook is a splendid all-round footballer who has been selected ahead of the dependable Stephen Jones.
Wales arrived at the tournament with the best-conditioned team in their history after a gruelling training camp in Poland and they have been fortunate with injuries.
“The conditioning the players did early mornings and last thing at night, training four or five times a day, was not pleasant at the time but, when you look back, it has paid dividends,” Hook told reporters on Thursday.
“I found it tough physically. It was tiring and taxing. We had not done it before but everyone came through it for the better.”
France, enigmatic as ever, became the second side only to reach the quarter-finals after losing two pool matches but then sent England packing last weekend.
Coach Marc Lievremont, who was barely on speaking terms with his players after they lost to Tonga, has kept faith with scrumhalf Morgan Parra at flyhalf and may also entrust the converted scrumhalf with the kicking duties.
Parra’s halfback partner Dimitri Yachvili, the first choice kicker, is carrying a painful thigh injury which could be aggravated if he is asked to place kick.
France are burdened with the reputation of a side who can play one big game in a tournament, as they have shown by beating New Zealand (twice), Australia and England in the knockout stages, but then go no further.
“We mustn’t rest on our laurels. Getting to the semi-final is a very big deal and I’m very happy with the performance of my players,” Lievremont said.
“As you may have noticed after the last match, there was no extreme euphoria, the players began straight away focussing on the rest of the tournament.”
France have won six of their last seven matches against Wales although historically there is nothing between two teams who meet for the first time in a World Cup. Since their first encounter in 1908, Wales have won 44 times, France 43 with three draws.