By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) – After suffering their third Rugby World Cup semi-final loss at the hands of South Africa on Sunday, Welsh rugby is coming to terms with another disappointment but as one era ends, record try scorer Shane Williams sees lots of hope for the future.
Head coach Warren Gatland will step down following the bronze match against New Zealand on Friday having taken Wales to the brink of the World Cup final twice, first in 2011 when they lost by a point to France and then the 19-16 loss on Sunday.
Williams, who scored three tries during Wales’ 2011 campaign, stressed that Sunday’s loss will be particularly bitter for the likes of captain Alun Wyn Jones and winger George 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,” Williams told Reuters on Monday.
“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,” said Williams at an event hosted by Rugby World Cup partner Land Rover in Tokyo.
“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.”
Gatland may not have managed to take Wales to the promised land of a first World Cup final but the New Zealander will leave with his head high following Friday’s bronze match against his homeland after 12 successful years in charge.
He has won four Six Nations titles and made Wales a force to be reckoned with again on the world stage.
Williams believes that incoming head coach Wayne Pivac, who will take over following the World Cup, has the perfect platform to build on Gatland’s success.
“I think he (Gatland) has put Welsh rugby in a great position,” said Williams.
“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.”
Pivac, another New Zealander, will be looking to refresh a squad that at times during the tournament has looked old and fatigued.
Williams sees a lot of talent coming through.
“(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,” said the former winger.
“All of a sudden these youngsters that he has coached… have learnt so much. They will be pushing to get in the team.
“With Pivac… in there, they will want to build on that legacy. I think Wales is in a good position.”
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by Christian Radnedge)