To be unaware of what unfolded in Auckland on October 15 2011, you’d either have to have been cowering away under the proverbial rock, or Alain Rolland. After all, after making the 20th minute decision the Irishman did during the match, it would take some serious mental blocking to get to sleep at night, not to put a biased spin on it of course.
That being said, the time for complaining has passed. Yes it was a bad decision. And yes, if it hadn’t been made, then Wales would have had an incredibly good chance of being in Sunday’s final, and deservedly so. But it was, and they’re not.
Does that mean Wales should still be mourning the loss of a Rugby World Cup final? A hundred times no. One could argue that the side never expected to reach the semi-final before the tournament begun and achieving their best finish in 24 years is no small feat. Friday’s match was another blow to the Dragons, and failing to grasp podium place will leave a mark, undoubtedly. However, Leigh Halfpenny’s try in the dying breaths showed exactly what got the team to fourth place, and the nation can take infinite solace in the fact that a bright future lay ahead of this youthful, exuberant squad.
When you think of some of the Welsh stars of this World Cup, you’d think along the lines of Jamie Roberts, Rhys Priestland, Toby Faletau, George North, Mike Phillips and of course their leader, Sam Warburton. When we take the 29 year-old Phillips out of that list, the five remaining combine for an average age of 22. And they aren’t alone. Bradley Davies, Jonathan Davies, Dan Lydiate, Leigh Halfpenny. All of the above are 24 years old or younger.
Not many national sides can say that they have the same potential for longevity within their side when we bear in mind that the Welsh don’t die young, with 34 year-old Shane Williams only now calling it a day on his international career.
While teams like Ireland are preparing to say goodbye to a number of key players in the coming months/years, Wales are calmly ushering in a new breed of youngsters that are quite capably stepping into key positions.
For example, while Stephen Jones is 33 years-old, Rhys Priestland is at the attractive age of 24 and looked exceedingly impressive over the tournament until being ruled out through injury. Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate both looked more than stable in the backrow, and Toby Faletau brought a touch of Tongan flair to the Number 8 position that set a steady platform for the backs on countless occasions.
Then, we take a look at the centre partnership of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies coupled with the seemingly limitless talent of George North and Leigh Halfpenny. Throw the experience of Mike Phillips and James Hook into that side and there’s no reason to think that if this team can stay fit, the Six Nations will be an appetiser for this side.
There’s now four years until the Rugby World Cup comes back to the Northern Hemisphere, when England will host the tournament in 2015. The boys in red will hide no shame in calling this home advantage, and if the side can unleash their full potential with four more years of international experience under their belts, the outcome will be scary.
Warren Gatland has commented that he intends to start planning for the eighth World Cup as soon as he returns to Wales, commenting: “It’s healthy at the moment, there’s still lots of things that we have to keep working on in Wales in terms of the academies and development, getting into schoolboy rugby long term.”
He added: “I’d like to think that this group of youngsters, a lot of them will be around in 2015, we won’t lose too many I think. In the next two years we’re going to see some really strong performances from this Wales team.”
I would be inclined to agree.
Welsh viewers will get up on Sunday morning, make their bacon sandwiches and sit down to watch the 2011 RWC final. They will then look at the French side line up against New Zealand and think to themselves “that should have been us”. Eighty minutes later, the elusive cup will be lifted by one of two men, and it wouldn’t be completely shameful to repeat that thought once again. The future is bright. The future is Red.