TOKYO (AP) — Wales rugby coach Warren Gatland is a dreamer, so the thought of taking the silver Webb Ellis Cup back to his native New Zealand and his family home in Waihi Beach has invariably crossed his mind.
“One of the things about me,” Gatland said Friday, “is that I am probably the greatest optimist in terms of believing something is possible. That there is a dream. If you don’t have that attitude, it will not happen.”
It explains why Gatland cut such a relaxed figure as he spoke with passion, confidence and no shortage of emotion about his Wales players, two days out from their Rugby World Cup semifinal match against South Africa.
Wales has had major injury setbacks this week — Liam Williams, a dangerous runner from fullback, was the latest Welsh player ruled of the tournament — and is viewed as the underdog against a big, bruising Springboks lineup which has run into great form in 2019.
Gatland still has utter belief, though.
“When you want something bad enough,” he said, “when you really, really want it, then it can happen.”
Underpinning Gatland’s confidence is the hard edge he has given to his team over the past two years that currently makes Wales one of the toughest propositions in world rugby.
The Welsh haven’t lost a competitive game in 19 months. They are the reigning Six Nations champions, having completed the Grand Slam this year. They have beaten the Springboks in five of their last six meetings, an exceptional turnaround after having only beaten them once in 108 years before that.
So why, exactly, would they be written off?
“If they continue to do that over the next couple of days, that would be brilliant,” a bullish Gatland said, addressing the doubters. “Please continue to do that as it does get us up when people write us off.
“I can’t understand why people would write us off.”
Sitting next to Gatland at his last news conference before the semifinal was Alun Wyn Jones, the Wales captain and a man-mountain of a figure who epitomizes everything about this new-look, hard-to-beat Welsh team.
“The message has been to enjoy this week — you have earned the right to be here,” said Jones, exuding a fierce determination.
“We got through the last game (a 20-19 win over France in the quarterfinals), and games in this season when we showed character, and I think that needs to come to the fore … We are expecting a better performance and a sling-shot effect from that.”
Gatland said he was more confident about beating South Africa than he had been about beating France, despite losing two key players to injury this week.
No. 8 Josh Navidi sustained a hamstring injury against France and was ruled out of the World Cup on Monday. Then, in a training session on Wednesday, Williams collided with a teammate, rolled his ankle, and was also told he would no longer play this tournament.
Leigh Halfpenny, who wasn’t in the match-day 23 against France, was promoted to the starting lineup against South Africa as Williams’ replacement, something Gatland said wouldn’t weaken the team “in any way.”
“He is defensively probably the best fullback in the world in terms of his aerial game and coverage,” Gatland said. “We had a long debate about whether we started Leigh in the first place and potentially move Liam to the wing.”
With flyhalf Gareth Anscombe and No. 8 Taulupe Faletau ruled out of the World Cup before it began, the Welsh are dipping into the reserves of their rather shallow player pool. Yet they are still just 80 minutes away from a first World Cup final.
“I just think for us to get to the final of a World Cup, it will be unbelievable given the small playing numbers we have in Wales, the four (provincial) teams,” Gatland said. “We feel like we continually punch above our weight.
“But the greatest thing about this group of players, since I have been involved with Wales, is that when they put that red jersey on and play for Wales, how much that means.”
Beat the Springboks and Wales will play either New Zealand or England in the championship match. It would be Gatland’s last match in charge of Wales after 12 years as its coach.
“I would love to beat the All Blacks,” he said, “as that is one (thing) I have not achieved.”
That’s Gatland. Always dreaming.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80