Wales reached the Rugby World Cup knockout phase for a fourth successive tournament before bowing out against quarter-final opponents Argentina.
And that represented a solid achievement given Wales’ struggles earlier in the year when poor form was matched by off-field issues such as financial and contractual uncertainty that almost led to a players’ strike.
Here, we look back on Wales’ World Cup campaign.
A Pool C opener against unpredictable Fiji in Bordeaux meant Wales’ hopes of progressing from their group faced an immediate threat, but they overcame the challenge – just. Wales led by 18 points thanks to tries from Josh Adams, George North, Louis Rees-Zammit and Elliot Dee, but Fiji hit back spectacularly through two tries before star back Semi Radradra dropped the ball as Wales’ try-line beckoned during the dying seconds.
A 32-26 victory was followed by them beating Portugal 28-8 in Nice, before Wales romped to a record 40-6 win against Eddie Jones’ hapless Australian team and Georgia were seen off 43-19 as Warren Gatland’s men secured top spot in the pool and collected 19 points from a possible 20.
They were favourites to beat Argentina at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome and reach the semi-finals, but Wales unravelled after building a 10-point advantage, losing 29-17 in what they will view as a huge missed opportunity.
Wales head coach Gatland saw the World Cup build-up begin by losing almost 300 caps’ worth of experience as Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb all retired from Test rugby in quick succession. An extended training squad went through punishing camps in Switzerland and Turkey before Gatland’s final 33-strong squad for France featured 16 players at their first World Cup.
The entire group had competitive minutes, and Wales’ three biggest games – Fiji, Australia and Argentina – saw just one enforced change of personnel after number eight Taulupe Faletau broke his arm during the Georgia win. There were also impressive moments from relative newcomers like Rio Dyer, Sam Costelow, Dafydd Jenkins and Christ Tshiunza as Gatland got his selection spot-on.
A number of players stood out for Wales as they made impressive progress through their group. Wing Rees-Zammit was the only player to start all four pool games and the quarter-final, and he scored five tries, including a hat-trick against Georgia.
Squad co-captain Jac Morgan – aged just 23 – evoked memories of a 22-year-old Sam Warburton skippering Wales in the 2011 World Cup through inspired leadership and superb performances, while North’s fourth World Cup – a Welsh record – was highlighted by impressively assured displays in midfield.
Lock Will Rowlands was another whose all-round quality helped keep his side on the front foot, and Faletau looked back to his world-class best before injury struck. Wales’ World Cup campaign was very much a collective effort.
Fly-half talisman Dan Biggar bowed out of international rugby following Wales’ loss to Argentina, but his enthusiasm for the future led to him stating: “A strong core of young players will know that they have got the talent to rub shoulders with the best of the best. I really think the future is bright for Welsh rugby”.
Wales’ quarter-final demise will mean frustration in the short term, but optimism should soon take over. Biggar has left the international arena, while Japan-bound backs Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe will not feature in the Six Nations later this season, but strong foundations have been laid, accompanied by a sprinkling of star-dust in players such as Rees-Zammit, Dyer, Costelow and Morgan.
And with Gatland at the helm, Wales’ next four-year World Cup cycle could prove one to savour.