By Hannah Blackwell
Ioan Cunningham insists Wales can consider their World Cup campaign a success, despite their painful 55-3 quarter-final exit at the hands of New Zealand.
The squad travelling home from Auckland should feel they are at the start of their broader mission, rather than the end of their participation in this single tournament, according to their head coach.
This was the first World Cup Wales have attended with a group of full-time professional players, a switch in structure that took place earlier this year.
And while questions will be raised that amateur quarter-final rivals Australia and Canada both won more matches than Wales – and in the case of Canada, have made the semi-finals – Cunningham insists progress has been made by his players in a short space of time.
“Contracts have changed the lives of these players, it’s something they waited a long time for and I’m excited for the future,” said Cunningham.
“Becoming professional rugby players this year has changed the lives of many of these players. It’s something they’ve waited a long time for.
“We need to rest and recover and then it will be all systems go for the Six Nations which will soon be on us.
What a journey! Some highs, some lows but memories made and we move forward stronger from this @rugbyworldcup experience
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏴 (@WelshRugbyUnion) October 31, 2022
“But we can take a lot of confidence from the progress we’ve shown during this tournament, from the last-minute win over Scotland, to being so competitive against Australia and gaining an invaluable losing bonus point, to our two performances against New Zealand.”
“We will take a lot of heart from this performance which showed we can compete physically with one of the best teams in the world.
“To play the world champions twice in two weeks is so valuable. This is just the start of our journey but it’s a special one and one I’m very proud to be part of.
“I would love to really push hard in the next few years and we would love to be in the semi-final in 2025.
“But first things first, we need to reflect on this tournament and prepare for the Six Nations.”
Portia Woodman – who became the tournament’s record try-scorer – and Luka Connor scored two tries apiece as the Black Ferns crossed the whitewash nine times at the Northland Events Centre.
Elinor Snowsill missed an early penalty for Wales, whose only points came from the boot of scrum-half Keira Bevan.
💬 @IoanCunningham “I’m so proud of the players. This is just the start of a special journey”
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏴 (@WelshRugbyUnion) October 30, 2022
New Zealand now take on France, who brushed aside quarter-final debutants Italy with a dominant second-half performance to triumph 39-3 in Whangarei.
Winger Joanna Grisez scored three of her side’s five tries, including a score on the overlap in the 70th minute to cap an impressive team effort.
New Zealand advance to the semi-finals and a meeting with France, who will be the next to try to find a way to stop the thrilling combination of Woodman, Ruby Tui and Ayesha Leti-I’iga.
“I think it’s even more fun than it looks,” Tui said on the spirit in the New Zealand team.
“This team has been through so much but we just want to show that women’s rugby is a product worth watching, we’ve all got our stories but we just want to entertain.
“If I could pick two wingers in the entire world to stand next to on the pitch it would be ‘P’ and Ayesha. It’s a dream. They’re two amazing players but actually really cool people who I know would have my back if anything happened off the field.
“They’re both horrible to tackle equally. I could not pick which one I would rather get a stinger from. The cool thing is they don’t care about the records.“They’re both humble humans but they’re also breaking records and selling out stadiums being awesome while they’re doing it.”