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Gatland: I'm proud that Wales now have world of respect

In charge: Wales coach Warren Gatland during a training session at The International Stadium, Yokohama yesterday
In charge: Wales coach Warren Gatland during a training session at The International Stadium, Yokohama yesterday
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

For all the interest in England and New Zealand in the other semi-final, and the praise heaped upon opposing coach Rassie Erasmus for his transformation of the Springboks in time for this World Cup, there is a sense that this has been something of a quiet week for Warren Gatland.

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Obviously the Wales head coach will have been working morning, noon and night in his efforts to give the country a parting gift of a Webb Ellis trophy but when it comes to column inches, there has been a view that here is the fourth of the four semi-finalists ahead of their meeting with South Africa in Yokohama tomorrow.

It's part of the reason why they're also the most fascinating, certainly the most contradictory.

Something that in Ireland has always confused is how the collective can be so much stronger than the regions from which the players are drawn.

One Heineken Cup finalist in the competition's history speaks for itself, while Scarlets' Pro14 success is the only domestic title since the last of the Ospreys' quartet of triumphs in 2012.

There are world-class players for sure, the likes of Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric would enhance any squad in the world, but just as many who don't particularly stand out regularly in the bread and butter stuff of trips to Kingspan, Thomond, the RDS and the Sportsground.

As Gatland said himself though, there's just something that happens when they pull on that red jersey. While Ireland dominate the club game, Wales have a Test record they could only dream about. They've won more Grand Slams since 2005 than Ireland have in their history, while Yokohama marks a third World Cup semi-final.

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Gatland himself has to be seen as the driving force, the glue of this past decade plus. The same man once sacked by Ireland after winning less than half his games - although his long-term contribution was clearly important in enticing foreign-based stars home - has created a side that he memorably described previously as having forgotten how to lose. While Sebastien Vahaamahina deserves a dollop of credit, last weekend's grinding quarter-final with France is a prime example.

"The biggest thing I am proud of is that we have earned respect from the rest of the world in terms of what we have achieved in the last 12 years," reflected Gatland, now just two games away from bringing the curtain down on a glorious era no matter what happens between now and the flight home. "I am not sure it was there before that.

"World rankings, where we were at (10th), what we have achieved in terms of Six Nations and Grand Slams.

"I would love to beat the All Blacks and that is one I have not achieved. Respect for what we have done is the biggest thing.

"I have got two games to go as the Wales coach and I want to enjoy these last two games.

"There are probably nine or 10 players who won't be involved in another World Cup so they have got to relish that opportunity and be excited about this.

"You have got a chance to do something special in your life and these chances come along very rarely and you have got to grab them with both hands.

"When you want something bad enough and you really, really want it, then it can happen. We have a group of players that really want to have a good performance on Sunday and hopefully get to the World Cup final.

"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 teams. 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 when they put that red jersey on and play for Wales, how much that means.

"They know the opportunity they have got to represent Wales and often ask simple questions that only they can answer.

"If you come off the field, whether you have won or lost, and you can look yourself in the mirror and say, 'I tried really hard today,' as coach that's all I can ask from them.

"Nine times out of 10, when they put that red jersey on and play for Wales, they have given 100 per cent.

"If we can make the World Cup final with the playing numbers we have got, it would be one hell of an achievement."

When Gatland next meets the Springboks it will be as the Lions coach in 2021, his third go around with that particular outfit. For all his silverware, it's the longevity that is most impressive.

South African counterpart and former Munster boss Rassie Erasmus reflected: "Warren is an absolute legend of the game.

"You very seldom see him in a mouth fight and mudslinging before Test matches. I've never been there having to reply to something he says, and he doesn't bite at you to create unnecessary nonsense before a Test match, so I've got a lot of respect for him as a person.

"His results on the field speak for themselves, with the Welsh team and the British and Irish Lions."

Starting tomorrow having also started Gatland's first game in charge against England in 2008, Alun Wyn Jones has been there for it all, latterly as his skipper and talisman.

"I don't think he has any fivers left to give me with all the nice things we have said about each other, and vice versa," laughed Jones of one of modern rugby's great coach and captain relationships.

"Somebody asked about this week and how much planning has gone into it - the best coaches don't learn from day to day, week to week or year to year, that planning process has been continual and we have two games left to do something he has not done yet."

For all the reasons why it shouldn't happen, Gatland loves nothing more than beating a stacked deck.

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