Gatland unable to clear a familiar final hurdle
Last four remains limit for overachieving Welsh Lions coach plans to get even with All Blacks
The semi-final curse struck Wales again and Alun Wyn Jones, playing in his 142nd Test, was hiding nothing. “My face tells the story,” the great leader said. After three World Cup exits at the last-four stage, Wales must hope there are other such characters coming up the line to keep hope alive.
If Jones is approaching the end, Warren Gatland, the coach, has only a bronze-medal match against the All Blacks before he concludes his 12-year reign in Wales. His team were bored into submission in a match that was the diametric opposite of England versus New Zealand the night before.
Gatland has won three Six Nations Grand Slams in those dozen years and deserves better than to leave his adopted home with a three-point loss, sealed with a 75thminute penalty.
Historically, Wales are overachievers in world rugby, but semifinals remain their limit. They were crushed 49-6 by New Zealand in 1987 and lost 9-8 to France in 2011, following Sam Warburton’s early red card. A poor performance against France in their quarter-final was ominous, but they played better against South Africa without employing the ball-in-hand skills that might have negated relentless Springbok box-kicking.
As Gatland said euphemistically: “There wasn’t a lot of flowing rugby played.” He talked of an “arm-wrestle” and “attrition”, without once denying South Africa credit for reaching the final.
Jones, who had made a tearful video professing his love for Welsh rugby, is among four Welshmen to have played in and lost two World Cup semis. The others are Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny and George North. Yet he remains the guiding light as Wales endeavour to keep their player production line rolling in an age when Welsh rugby is struggling to compete financially.
Even in defeat, Jones led the traditional Welsh salute to all four sides of the ground and told a Japanese reporter: “After every game we’ve bowed to the four stands. We started in Kitakyushu because it’s not often you get 15,000 people to your training session. We realised the desire the Japanese people had, with the welcome they’d given us, and we wanted to display our thanks.”
‘My first game in charge was against England and the dream was to play England in my last’
This was the measure of the man, even as the scoreboard measured an agonisingly narrow loss. A match of 81 kicks from hand tested the patience of even the most devoted rugby fan and placed a fresh burden on Eddie Jones’s England, who were in a different league against the All Blacks. If England are unable to see off the soporific Springboks, then history will damn them for missing a gilded opportunity and forcing the world to acknowledge champions who had their imaginations surgically removed for this match.
To row back from that for a moment, South Africa were better than this against Japan, and might not be so turgid in Saturday’s final. Maybe the British viewer is just aggrieved at the loss of an Anglowelsh finale. “The All Blacks are probably hurting as much as we are,” Gatland pointed out. But the loss of the dream final saddens British rugby just as much.
“My first game in charge was against England and the dream was to play England in my last game,” he said. World Cups have their own peculiar dynamic and each time those forces have stood in the way of Wales playing in a final.
“For me, my last game in charge of Wales against the All Blacks will be hugely monumental,” Gatland said. “Apart from with the Lions, it’s the only team we haven’t beaten with Wales.”
The coaching road takes him to the Chiefs in Super Rugby, then the Lions again, where, he said, he will “try to have some revenge from tonight’s game with South Africa. We weren’t able to do it tonight but maybe in a couple of years with the Lions.” This shows you his restless nature. An hour after a World Cup semi-final defeat, he was already working out how to get even.
End of road: Warren Gatland with centre Jonathan Davies after Wales’s defeat