RWC 2011: Wales need feel no fear in knock out stages.

 For many, the rugby world cup in New Zealand has been one of redemption for Wales. Increasingly impressive results over Samoa and Fiji have put to bed any lingering concerns regarding the mental fragility of this squad, and broken a hoodoo to have held back Welsh rugby teams at the highest level for nearly two decades. In their comprehensive route of Fiji, Wales managed to produce, not a perfect performances, but something verging on a complete performances. Attack and defence, ruck and maul, scrum and lineout, Wales controlled it all, and did so for 80 minutes. Unlike certain teams though, Wales this time were not waiting for their opponents to tire as the game went on to put away the points, the job was down in the first forty, yet with the result in the bag, the points kept coming, as the so called ‘tier 1’, mentality came into the Welsh game.

Next up is Ireland, and if you take the pundits views, it would seem Wales need not bother turning up, Irish experience is going to win the day. ITV’s dreadful world cup coverage has been covered in detail elsewhere (http://oneeyeonwales.blogspot.com/2011/09/hating-itv-at-rwc2011.html), but according to that particular commentary team, Ireland will ease to victory, while England will prove too much for both the French and Irish, and ease into the final. What these assessments is based on is hard to determine.

It should not be ignored that this will be Wales’ toughest fixture, knockout rugby brings more pressure, Ireland come in with their much vaunted experience and a squad with a track record in such stages of tournaments and of course, on paper, Ireland hold the better recent run of results over stronger opponents and a higher world ranking. But there is very little for Wales to fear. Ireland come into the quarter finals with a pack that is remembering how to play tight, one channel rugby, with backs that are slowly reminding themselves how to finish, and a truly world class back row, against Italy much of this came together to finish off the Azzuri with some style. But Wales are not Italy.

This column has been amongst the first, and repeatedly so, to mock the constant talk of team fitness coming out of the Wales camp. Fitness this, Polish training camp that, they went on, a first match warm up defeat to England did little to espouse the value of such merits. Yet as this tournament has progressed, that fitness has shone through game by game. Wales are finishing teams off, and by 80 minutes, look like they could go for another 40 minutes. Others in this tournament have been blowing, and hard, by the final whistle. There is much for Wales to cite as a strength going into the knock out stages, a strong pack, backed up by a lineout dominating Charteris, who behind him has three of the most exciting backrow players to enter the world stage since, well, since the respective Irish trio. Yet, as devastating as the Welsh forwards, led by Warburton, they need only find parity for the Welsh backline to open up Ireland, with a strength and speed not seen in many other teams. Roberts, North, Halfpenny and Williams (Shane that is), have now been joined by Scott Williams, the latest of a prodigious backline of Welsh attacking talent. If the names listed here do not give Ireland cause for concern, then they have not been doing their homework. As stressed at the start of this tournament, Wales will see the true potential of this backline in the 2015 world cup, but their ability at the moment, to break open defences, be it from first phase, broken play, or on the back foot, should be frightening. But put all of this to one side, it is the fitness that should really concern Ireland. Wales will be hitting them for 80 minutes like no team has done so in New Zealand so far. That goes for Australia as well, who suffered without the presence of David Pocock. Wales have no injury concerns, and a wealth of talent at their disposal that simply won’t tire.

While it would seem that everyone has settled on Ireland to simply turn up, use some of that much relied upon experience, and ease away, judging teams on form and ability, there is at the very least no reason for Wales to fear the Irish challenge, and plenty of reason to think that it will be a red and white semi final, rather than a green and white one.

(That is to suggest England will come through their quarter final. However, France are always due one stellar performance, they give one, and only one in every world cup – it hasn’t happened yet, and as things stand, they only have one chance to do it now, so who knows…)

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