Shane Williams believes Wales can build on solid foundations as they prepare for life after Warren Gatland.
As the beaten World Cup semi-finalists prepare to take on New Zealand in the third-place play-off on Friday – Gatland’s final match in charge – record tryscorer Williams is optimistic about the future under Gatland’s successor Wayne Pivac, despite the obvious ending of a four-year cycle for players and management.
Captain Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams, George North, Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny, Ken Owens and Justin Tipuric could all be gone by the time of the next tournament in 2023, but Williams sees enough young talent to build upon.
“I think Warren Gatland has put Welsh rugby in a great position,” says Williams, who has been among ITV’s team of pundits in Japan.
“What he has installed is confidence and pride in that jersey. Now people in Wales believe this is a team that can win World Cups and a lot of that is down to Warren Gatland and what he has instilled in these players.”
“Gatland has brought a lot of youngsters through and there will be a lot of current players that we won’t see in the next World Cup.
“But all of a sudden these youngsters that he has coached, they will have learnt so much. They will be pushing to get in the team.
“With Wayne Pivac… in there, they will want to build on that legacy. I think Wales is in a good position.”
Josh Adams – who has equalled Williams’ Welsh record of six tries in a World Cup, with one match still remaining – is among a group of younger players Pivac will base the next campaign around.
The 24-year-old wing will be joined by the likes of Tomos Williams, Aaron Wainwright, Rhys Carre, Ross Moriarty and the injured Ellis Jenkins in shaping a team for the future.
Williams, who scored three tries during Wales’ 2011 campaign, stressed that Sunday’s loss will be particularly bitter for the likes of captain Jones and winger North who have now lost two semi-finals.
“It stings. For me, as an ex-player, it stings but I can’t imagine what the lads are feeling, especially as there are lads there who would have gone through the exact same thing in 2011.
“I know how much that hurt back then. So for some of these guys to lose two semi-finals, in the manner of which they did, is gut-wrenching.”
Despite winning three Grand Slams with Wales and 133 caps, Jones was understandably left devastated by Sunday’s loss as it appears the 34-year-old will not have another World Cup tilt.
Williams, himself World Player of the Year in 2008, lauded his former team mate.
“The best player I have played with – he was world class then but he is a better player now. He is more of a leader now. The man is an absolute machine.
“He is a true warrior and if anyone in a Welsh jersey deserves to get to a World Cup final, it was that man.
“So, I am absolutely gutted for the lads. I am more gutted for the likes of Alun Wyn, the Jonathan Davies’, the Leigh Halfpennys and the (George) Norths that have been there the second time now.”
Jonathan Davies has urged Wales players to bid farewell to Gatland by delivering him victory over his native New Zealand, the only team he has not beaten as Welsh coach.
It is asking a lot for the injury-ravaged squad to end a 66-year losing streak against the All Blacks, who will be smarting from their semi-final defeat by England.
But the Scarlets centre said: “A World Cup comes every four years, it is up there with the pinnacle and to get an opportunity to play in a semi-final was something very special.
“It’s an achievement for everyone in this squad and now it’s about making sure we come together, dust ourselves off and look forward to playing for a bronze medal.
“This squad is never going to be the same again, the coaching staff, the players. This is a special group. We have got to earn that right to hopefully get a bronze medal from the end of it.”
Gatland, who will take charge of the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2021 as well as coaching the Chiefs, led Wales to three Grand Slams, including this year. He was appointed after the World Cup exit in the group stage in 2007 after defeat by Fiji.
In the three Rugby World Cups since, Wales have reached the semi-finals twice – losing at RWC 2011 and RWC 2019 by a combined total of four points – and the quarter-finals in 2015 when South Africa triumphed with a late try.
“For us to go out there and expect to win games is down to Gats,” said Davies. “We started off when he first came in punching above our weight but now we feel we belong in the top flight of world rugby.
“He has brought that edge to us so it was no surprise for us to be playing a semi-final. Losing is never good, but what was on the line was a chance to make history and unfortunately we came up second best.”
Gatland will be forced to make several changes to his starting team as he takes his leave against the All Blacks in the game neither team wanted.
Davies returned against the Springboks despite a knee injury that kept him out of the quarter-final, and fellow centre Hadleigh Parkes has been playing with a broken bone in his wrist and a shoulder problem.
Prop Tomas Francis (shoulder) and wing George North (hamstring) went off in the closing minutes of the first-half in Yokohama on Sunday, joining full-back Liam Williams (ankle) and back-row forward Josh Navidi (hamstring) who had their World Cup campaigns ended last week.