Wales and Warren Gatland will head into uncharted waters on Sunday morning. As favourites for their World Cup quarter-final with France at Oita Stadium, they are in a position previous Welsh teams have found both uncomfortable and rare.
It is one this side is happy with, though. Gatland’s class of 2019 are enjoying the best shot of global glory the country has ever had. Overcome France and a semi-final with South Africa or the hosts, Japan, awaits. Both are beatable which means two winnable games stand between Wales and the final – and with that comes its own pressure.
Still, this is a relaxed and quietly confident squad who are determined to send Gatland out on a high in what is his last tournament as head coach after 11 trophy-laden years.
The wing Josh Adams – joint top of the World Cup try-scoring list before the quarter-finals – said of Sunday’s game: “You could argue we are favourites. People said we were favourites for the Australia game. It’s a tag we don’t mind having. We have worked hard to earn the tag of being one of the best teams and if teams want to pick us as favourites, that’s fine. We all know what is at stake, but it has been a relaxed camp this week. We will go about our business and know what needs to be done.”
The flanker Justin Tipuric added: “We are still coming under the radar a bit. We probably are favourites for this game, but it’s never been spoken of. You don’t want to lose any game, but unfortunately in rugby there are lots of ups and downs. In 2015 it was one of those frustrating times when we lost that quarter-final with South Africa. The boys have learned from that and we don’t want to feel disappointment like that again. Fingers crossed it won’t happen.”
The strength of the Welsh side and their recent record against France points to Gatland’s dream of a glorious finale reaching the semi-final stage. Wales have won seven of the last eight meetings and the only defeat in that run was the 100-minute Six Nations match in 2017, which was filled with controversy.
Gatland has selected his first-choice side this time after the key backs Dan Biggar, Hadleigh Parkes, Jonathan Davies and George North were all passed fit to start. The starting XV has 805 caps of international experience. There is knowhow on what it takes to win Test rugby everywhere you look.
The same cannot be said of France, who were underwhelming in their pool victories over Argentina, Tonga and USA and have not played for two weeks after their meeting with England was cancelled.
Alun Wyn Jones, the captain, and Wales are desperate to ensure Gatland’s last hurrah continues until the tournament ends. “The planning for this has probably been in Warren’s head for the last 10 years rather than the last four, two or 18 months,” said Jones, who will move equal third with Brian O’Driscoll on rugby’s all-time list of appearance makers on 141. “He is constantly building and what we have achieved or have not comes down to this moment. I wanted to get that message across early because these Test weeks go very quickly.”
France let slip a 16-0 half-time lead to lose to Wales in the Six Nations and their confidence can be fragile. Gatland will look to exploit that with a fast start – the opposite of what they produced in Paris, but a repeat of their early displays against Georgia and Australia. The head coach said: “We are aware of France’s individual threats but they have had the most turnovers in the competition and they have played one game less.
“There are potential opportunities there. Antoine Dupont is probably one of the best 9 s in the world. He is very influential, but for us playing against France is about chasing lost causes. Four of our last seven tries against France have been situations where one of their players has made an error and we have capitalised. That is something we have identified as a group.”
Jacques Brunel, the France coach, has been boosted by the availability of Dupont and the wing Damian Penaud after their recoveries from back and pelvic problems. Their side have it all to do but there is also the intriguing potential of an upset. It is this that has focused Welsh minds as they look to avoid the Gatland era ending in a damp squib.
Brunel said: “Wales’s confidence is higher than ours and that’s obvious. Their ranking is much better. They’ve been consistent for a few seasons. They’re the favourites. We’re in the role of the underdog, but it doesn’t stop us believing in our chances.”