How boot camp put fire into Welsh Dragons
It is more than 11,000 miles from Poland to New Zealand — but there will always be a close connection from the standing of Wales' spectacular World Cup campaign.
Barely three months ago, Wales' preliminary World Cup squad embarked on the first of two punishing training camps at the former Polish Olympic training village of Spala.
Early morning starts and Spartan conditions could hardly be further removed from the bright lights and sense of grandeur accompanying a World Cup semi-final that awaits Wales at Eden Park on Saturday.
But James Hook, who is set to be involved in Wales' matchday 22 this weekend, has no doubt about the contribution those Poland trips made towards moulding the squad into genuine world title contenders.
“We have built a club environment rather than an international one,” said Hook, who will play club rugby in France with Perpignan post-World Cup.
“It is difficult when you go from your region to an international, but from the Poland trips right the way through we have been together and built the club environment which has worked for us.
“Poland built a base for us. There were some tough days, but when you look back it was definitely all worth it.
“Training four or five times a day was not pleasant at the time, but when you look back it has paid dividends.
“I found it tough physically. It was tiring and taxing. We had not done it before, but everyone came through it for the better.”
Wales will face France having won seven of their last nine games against all opponents, while young talent such as skipper Sam Warburton, wing George North and number eight Toby Faletau will leave for home later this month after taking the tournament by storm.
They might also board the plane as world champions with the Webb Ellis Trophy for company.
“The talent we have in the squad has never been doubted,” Hook (pictured) added.
“It was errors in games that cost us by small margins, but the momentum of winning games and developing confidence has given us that bit more belief and we realise now that we can beat these big teams.
“The young boys have surprised a few of us in the way that they have come through, showing a maturity and putting in performances.
“The way the likes of George North and Sam Warburton are stepping up goes without saying.
“They are turning into world-class players very quickly, much earlier than most professionals, and I am sure they will continue that through their careers.
“There has not been a lot in our recent games against France. Little errors have cost us.
“If we continue what we have been doing in the tournament so far and cut them out, I am sure we can get the result we want.”
Wales coach Warren Gatland will announce the team to play France overnight, British time, with fly-half Rhys Priestland and lock Luke Charteris both hoping to have recovered from shoulder injuries suffered against quarter-final opponents Ireland last weekend.
Priestland is thought to be a doubt, but France defence coach Dave Ellis believes Wales will keep their same style of play if the Scarlets player misses out.
“I've been quite impressed by him since the game he played against South Africa,” Ellis said.
“He has stepped into the role and fitted in perfectly with what they want to do. He is serving players early and getting the ball wide, causing teams major problems.
“He is standing back and operating, whereas on occasions you've had Stephen Jones getting a bit too close to the line, thereby allowing defences to get to him.
“Priestland is playing very well, but if he doesn't play on Saturday I don't think it will alter the way they play.
“Stephen Jones and James Hook are very experienced. The team is on a roll, and I don't think it will cause many differences to the momentum of the team.”