Hello and welcome to Telegraph Sport’s coverage of today’s World Cup quarter-final as Pool C winners Wales take on Pool D runners-up Argentina in Marseille.
The trajectories of these two proud rugby nations have diverged in the past year. 11 months ago, Wales were in dire straits. Under the command of Wayne Pivac, they had slip to ninth in the rankings, having won 13 games, lost 20 and drawn one, including a Six Nations defeat to Italy.
Pivac’s tenure reached its nadir with a 13-12 loss to Georgia at the Principality, the ignominy of which proved to be the death knell of his rule and heralded the return of veteran campaigner Warren Gatland.
But despite a change of leadership, the team showed little sign of improvement, earning just one win in the 2023 Six Nations. At points, it looked as if off-pitch drama might engulf the national side as female employees accused the Welsh Rugby Union of sexism and the threat of pay cuts led to calls for a player walkout ahead of the England game. It was only after 11th-hour talks that the game went ahead.
But as Wales bedded in for their World Cup training camp, their were whisperings of a resurgence in the valleys. Word quickly spread of Gatland’s grueling training regimen as the old general sought to whip his troops into shape ahead of their re-emergence on the World Stage. In July, he wrote in these pages about the virtues of ‘stress training’ beneath an image of a cartoonishly muscle-bound Gareth Davies.
Whatever Gatland’s methods involved, they worked. Wales emerged from their summer chrysalis transformed from a potential laughing stock to be a complete revelation in France.
Few players have been more influential in this metamorphosis from hapless drifters to battle-hardened warriors than their skipper, Jac Morgan. The indomitable back row is the youngest captain at the World Cup, aged 23. But what he lacks in years, he more than makes up for in all-round skill and leadership.
After marshalling his side to a 32-26 win against Fiji, followed by a 28-8 victory over Portugal, he put the full gamut of his abilities on display in Wales’ record 40-6 win over Australia. One moment burying his head into the breakdown to steal a turnover, the next landing a 50-22 that even Antoine Dupont would be proud of. All the while sporting the bloodied nose of a Celtic warrior. “Tis but a scratch,” one imagines him saying in the manner of Monty Python’s Black Knight.
Wales rounded off their pool stage clean sweep with a gutsy 43-19 win over Georgia in Nantes last Saturday.
With Argentina, meanwhile, there is a feeling they have peaked too soon. In August last year, they scaled the dizzy heights of rugby’s Olympus to record their second ever win against New Zealand. This came on top of victory against the All Blacks in 2020 and all added to a feeling that Los Pumas may finally rid themselves of their underdog tag at this World Cup.
But since then, they have simmered. Despite pushing South Africa to the brink in July, The South Americans’ only victories against tier-one nations have come against misfiring Australia and England sides.
After an opening round defeat against England in the pool stages at the World Cup and an unconvincing display against Samoa, Argentina rallied to claim the second Pool D quarter-final berth with a 39-27 win over Japan in Nantes six days ago.
Wales have the upper hand in matches against Los Pumas, winning 15 and drawing one of the 22 tests between the two sides, including both past meetings at Rugby World Cups, in 1991 – their first full test meeting – and 1999.
Yet despite looking a little off the boil, Argentina’s side is stocked with veterans from 2015 – when they beat Ireland to reach the semi-finals – including centurions Agustín Creevy and Nicolás Sánchez, as well as Facundo Isa and captain Julián Montoya to name a few. Those players know what it takes to reach a World Cup semi-final and may not get the chance to do so again.
Win today, and they will book their place in the last four to face either Ireland or New Zealand in Saint-Denis.
“They have good defence, good fixed formations. Our first plan is for them to stop us and not us to stop them,” said Argentina head coach Michael Cheika.
“If we can impose our strategy, which I think is good for this match, we can have some advantage. If they impose their strategy, the afternoon may be longer.
“Being in the quarter-finals gave us a boost. The most important thing is to know what we want to do and then be able to carry it out.”
Wales fly-half Dan Biggar said: “For me, I am not thinking about anything, I don’t want this to be my last day as a rugby player for Wales.
“For those of us who will be finishing after the World Cup there will be a bit of extra pressure, but it is also a huge motivation.
“I definitely don’t want my last day as a Welsh rugby player to be losing a quarter-final.”