Warren Gatland has claimed he will be heartbroken if Wales squander his legacy.
The Wales coach was unable to summon a fairytale finish to his 12 years in charge as New Zealand emphatically won the World Cup bronze medal at Tokyo Stadium.
The All Blacks’ 40-17 triumph consigned Wales to a fourth place finish for the second time in three World Cup campaigns under Gatland.
It also extended New Zealand’s winning run against Wales to 31 Tests, having not lost in the fixture since 1953.
Gatland’s 12-year reign, highlighted by four Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-final appearances, is over but he insisted there was no emotion.
“I’d already gone through that process, realising it was my last game and trying not to be emotional about it,” he said of his feelings after his final game in charge.
“I really hope what we’ve achieved over the last 10 to 12 years, what we’ve done to restore the respect back into Wales as an international team, I hope the new coaching team come in and build on that.
“After what we’ve done, what we’ve achieved, it would break my heart if Wales went back into the doldrums.”
Gatland said the quick turnaround after a bruising semi-final defeat to South Africa last Sunday had probably proved too much for his injury-depleted squad.
Overall though, he said his players’ behaviour had been exemplary in Japan and their attitude had made them a pleasure to coach.
“If you ask them to run through a brick wall, their first question is ‘what do you want us to do when we get to the other side?’,” he said.
“As such a small playing nation, we have to work harder. We don’t have as many players as other countries do so we really
have to ring the sponge dry as much as we can.”
Gatland will be replaced by fellow New Zealander Wayne Pivac and heads back to his hometown to coach Super Rugby side the Waikato Chiefs.
“There’s an opportunity for the new group to come in and build on what we’ve created,” he added.
“We know how difficult it is to win the Six Nations so we don’t want to be too greedy. Just continuing to perform well in
the Six Nations and maybe win a few.
“I just want to continue to see these boys be as successful
as they possibly can.”
Captain Alun Wyn Jones said Gatland’s success as Wales coach had been far wider reaching than just what had happened on the
“His success is unrivalled, Grand Slams and semi-finals of the World Cup speak for themselves,” he said.
“He’s re-established Welsh rugby. As a player you sometimes get focused on the rugby and not who you are.
“He and the coaching staff have re-established that. I think that’s a massive thing, not only for the players to build on but
it gives the country and nation so much pride.”
“Our boys never gave up and tried to play some good rugby but probably a game too far for us,” said Gatland.
“I’ve loved my time in Wales but that era’s over now and I’m looking forward to the next challenge.”
Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones said: “We tried to play a bit but the score probably didn’t reflect that.
“I think most of the squad earned their first caps under Warren. His legacy is a lot bigger than one game.”
New Zealand had the game sewn up by half-time through wing Ben Smith’s try double, plus touchdowns for prop Joe Moody and full-back Beauden Barrett, with fly-half Richie Mo’unga kicking four conversions.
Wales countered through Hallam Amos’ clever try and five points from Rhys Patchell, but centre Ryan Crotty’s try and another Mo’unga conversion early in the second-half finished them off before Mo’unga added a late touchdown.
Wing Josh Adams scored a second Wales try, though, giving him seven in the tournament and breaking Shane Williams’ Wales record for one World Cup campaign that he set 12 years ago.
Dan Biggar converted, leaving an under-strength Wales to take considerable comfort from a battling display that augers well for their future under Gatland’s successor Wayne Pivac.
Gatland made nine changes for his final game in charge, with injuries sidelining players like Leigh Halfpenny, George North and Aaron Wainwright, while wing Owen Lane made a World Cup debut and lock Adam Beard also started.
All Blacks boss Steve Hansen, who is also standing down after the tournament, included the likes of centre Sonny Bill Williams, wing Rieko Ioane and flanker Sam Cane.
The Wales players did not follow England’s example in the semi-final last weekend of encroaching over the halfway line while New Zealand performed their pre-match Haka.
They faced it in regulation fashion standing on their own 10-metre line, but Wales were soon back-pedalling under pressure before Mo’unga hit the post with a straightforward penalty chance.
But the All Blacks struck after five minutes following a charge by lock Brodie Retallick that ended with Moody touching down and Mo’unga converting for a 7-0 lead.
Wales showed some promising glimpses, with wing Adams prominent in attack, but New Zealand cut them open again in the 12th minute when scrum-half Aaron Smith broke sharply and found try-scorer Barrett.
Mo’unga again converted, and Wales were already hugely up against it, trailing by 14 points.
Wales then sacrificed two kickable penalties, and their forwards went close to breaching New Zealand’s defence before Amos applied a neat finish, claiming a try that Patchell converted.
Wales continued to attack with freedom, and Patchell kicked a 27th-minute penalty that made it 14-10.
Wales’ response to two early setbacks had been outstanding, and another pinpoint Patchell touch-finder took them back inside New Zealand’s 22.
Both sides looked to attack at every opportunity, and New Zealand struck next when Smith worked his way over for a try, again converted by Mo’unga.
Wales continued to have plenty of possession, yet New Zealand finished the half well on top.
Smith sprinted over for a second try in five minutes, and another Mo’unga conversion made it 28-10 at the interval.
New Zealand had gone up a gear, and their fifth try arrived just two minutes into the second period, with Crotty crashing over and Mo’unga converting.
It looked like being a long second-half for Wales, and Gatland began making changes, with half-backs Biggar and Gareth Davies both going on.
New Zealand had the game done and dusted, though, to at least gain something tangible from a World Cup campaign that saw England end their hopes of a world title hat-trick.