After spending so much of the first half of this year searching for a sense of direction and calm, the feeling of contentment and confidence around Wales this week has been clear.
Warren Gatland’s side are right where they want to be. It helps, of course, that the squad have spent their days leading up to a quarter-final meeting with Argentina at a beachside idyll in charming Toulon, away from the intensity of Marseille along the French south coast.
But having begun the summer looking something of a rabble, this tournament could hardly have gone much better. Wales have settled on a starting side, are playing well and boast a four-from-four record so far in France.
No wonder Gatland was in a jocular mood at the team announcement on Thursday. “Absolutely,” Warren Gatland replied almost too swiftly when asked if he was comfortable with being labelled favourites to make a semi-final, before firing a few pot shots at those on the opposite side of the draw and cracking a quip at the expense of his captain, Jac Morgan.
“Two months ago, there were a lot of people speculating we weren’t going to get out of the group,” Gatland continued. “The players have done all the hard work.
“We’re not surprised at all by where we are, in finishing top of the group. We haven’t picked up too many injuries which has been a bonus and we think we are in pretty good shape, both from a physical and mental point of view.”
“A quarter-final poses its own challenges and pressure,” he added. “You either win or you go home on Monday. But that is what we’ve prepared for. And this squad aren’t ready to go home.”
No doubt, Gatland will regard this as a golden opportunity. Having made the last four in Japan, a semi-final appearance appeared a distant prospect when he retook the head coaching role ahead of this year’s Six Nations – all the more so after six months of torment and turmoil that included the last-minute avoidance of a players’ strike, a raft of retirements and withdrawals of senior players, and concerning allegations around a culture of misogyny at the WRU.
The head coach stayed sanguine throughout, trusting in his plan and his experience of World Cups before, knowing that this sort of campaign could be still on the cards if he played a duff hand well. Now, having achieved what has been described as the baseline achievement at this tournament, Wales are hungry for more.
“I think when I look back, if we make the semi-finals, it would be my third semi [as Wales coach],” Gatland reflected on his past tournaments. “I’d be pretty proud of that.
“I always enjoy World Cups because of the preparation – it’s the only time you really feel like a club side in terms of getting the detail done. That’s helped us in the past.
“After all of the challenges during the Six Nations, which the documentary, the potential strike, the contracts, the money [dispute] with the regions… at the time, the coaches were joking about what was going to be the next thing thrown at us.
“If we can make the semi-final, it would be a huge achievement for this group of players. There are some teams out there that won’t want to face a Wales team playing with confidence. That’s when we are at our most dangerous.”
With the stakes raised, the only fly in the Welsh ointment is the injury to Taulupe Faletau, whose absence is significant. That said, the pairing of Morgan and Tommy Reffell on the flanks should pose Argentina challenging questions at ruck time, while the return to fitness of Dan Biggar, an arch-game manager who should suit this sort of contest, is key. Wales would appear to have a good blend of fresh faces and old heads to manage the occasion.
The same, though, could be said of Argentina, who have slipped into the last eight almost unnoticed with so much attention elsewhere. But there is a degree of uncertainty. If we saw Wales at somewhere near their best in the thrashing of Australia, then Argentina have so far been below their top level. Michael Cheika’s men wilted in the Marseille heat on the opening weekend, letting a 14-man England shut them down entirely at the Stade Velodrome.
They return to the scene of that disappointment tougher and, it would seem, better, finding their attacking groove against Japan in what was effectively a last-16 encounter. Cheika will feel that his side still have another gear to go to. For all Gatland will talk up his own tournament record, it is worth remembering that his opposite number has been to a World Cup final – something the Wales coach has never managed.
“We know Wales are favourites and that’s pretty clearly obvious,” Cheika admitted this week.
“We know that we’re going to have to do something different, something special around the game on Saturday so that we can be competitive with them, but I’m a huge believer in the team. They’ve felt a bit of that expectation of trying to make it through. I think they’ll really enjoy Saturday and, from the work we’ve done, I feel like they’ll feel like they’re ready.”
The path beyond this weekend looks rocky, regardless of which side progresses. Ireland or New Zealand await on semi-final weekend and there is every chance that the victor here will find themselves butting up against the ceiling of their tournament ambitions. But get to the final four and anything can happen – and both Wales and Argentina sense the opportunity.
Wales v Argentina, Saturday, kick-off 4pm, ITV1 from 3pm