For a man who had just delivered the most influential performance of his international career, Rhys Patchell kept a typically cool head as he reflected upon Wales’ pulsating win over Australia. “A job well done tonight in terms of getting the result but it doesn’t count for anything if we don’t back it up in nine days’ time,” he said.
Head coach Warren Gatland went marginally further, admitting that his men deserved to “pat each other on the back” following a gritty, lung-busting performance in Tokyo, one underpinned by granite-like resolve and resilience.
But despite the scale and nature of the win, the message was clear: nothing has changed. Although Sunday’s result has brought into focus the likely match-ups for the tournament’s quarter-finals, Wales are refusing to get ahead of themselves. Their focus is on Fiji next Wednesday, followed by a final Pool D clash with Uruguay. It’s business as usual for the Welsh.
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Nonetheless, it’s hard not to shake the sense of what this side could now achieve. It’s hard not to think that they could indeed go all the way. For although Sunday’s encounter may only have been a group match, ingrained in the Welsh performance was one key dynamic which will sustain them in the coming weeks, regardless of who they face: unshakeable, unbreakable, unwavering self-belief.
For all the magic and menace of that opening half, in which an energised Welsh team stormed out of the blocks to swiftly pull ahead of their rivals, it was the second 40 which reaffirmed the World Cup credentials of Gatland’s men.
As the Wallabies finally found their rhythm, the game morphed into a battle of survival for the Welsh. This was no longer about taking the fight to Australia – they had done that in the opening 20 minutes – but showcasing their ability to withstand the relentless, rolling waves of yellow shirts rising up from the Tokyo turf.
“You’re aware that it’s a bit like a tide,” Patchell said. “Sometimes there’s no point trying to force against it but you’ve got to withstand it, you’ve got to roll with it and know that you’ll get your chance and go with it.”
In the past, this has been a fixture defined by tortuously narrow margins, with the Welsh often wilting in the face of their opponents’ fightbacks. Between 2008 and 2018, they suffered 13 successive defeats against the Wallabies, with only two of those losses by more than nine points. But after last autumn’s dogged 9-6 victory, and now this famous World Cup win, it seems Wales have finally unearthed the invaluable quality of ‘hanging in’ against the game’s heavyweights.
Former captain Sam Warburton spoke at length before this tournament of the psychological maturity present in the Welsh, courtesy of Gatland’s influence. “He has changed the perception of the Welsh public from being underdogs, which they were used to in the 1990s and 2000s,” Warburton said of his old boss. “He has changed the psychology of the Welsh team. You work hard to be the top dog, and he has got the boys in that state of mind.”
On account of Sunday’s performance, Warburton’s words now carry even more weight. We saw that “state of mind” at the breakdown, with the impervious pairing of Aaron Wainwright and Justin Tipuric repeatedly getting the better of their opposite numbers. We saw it in the backline, Jonathan Davies and Hadleigh Parkes holding firm against Australia’s midfield battering rams. We saw it in the 183 tackles made by the Welsh, almost double the Wallabies’ count.
Without wanting to get too carried away, we cannot look past the realities of Sunday’s performance. As was the case with Georgia, Wales struggled to maintain their initial intensity and allowed their opponents back into the game. Three tries were conceded. Australia dominated possession, territory, ball carries, metres made and more. Given their quality, this response was always to be expected. But had it been, say, New Zealand heading into the break 18 points clear, you feel the second half might not have made for such an absorbing, thrilling affair. Wales have shown their ability to dispel the best – but do they have what it takes to dominate?
Still, as we saw in Tokyo, rugby can be shaped by the smallest of details. A dropped ball. A late turnover. A penalty kick that fails to find touch. These moments can swing the pendulum in either direction, gifting one side ecstasy and the other agony. But without belief there can be no reward. And with an abundance of this at their disposal, Wales will know that anything is possible as they plot their assault on World Cup glory one thumping step at a time.