MARSEILLE – Wales play Argentina in Marseille on Saturday with a place in the World Cup semi-final at stake, a position few thought Warren Gatland's Welsh side would be in after a year of turmoil.
Welsh rugby was in disarray when Gatland was hired for a second time, taking over from Kiwi predecessor Wayne Pivac as uncertainty over a deal between the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and its regional clubs left players worrying about their futures.
A sexism and racism scandal saw WRU chairman Steve Phillips resign while the players threatened to go on strike ahead of their Six Nations match against England.
Senior stalwarts such as Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Ken Owens and Rhys Webb also all retired just months before the World Cup began.
Gatland, who led Wales to three Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-finals (2011, 2019) in his first tenure, said he revelled in handling tournament teams that felt like clubs.
“I have always spoken about how much I have enjoyed the World Cups because of preparation,” he said.
“It’s the only time you get to feel you are a club side in terms of getting our detail done and having an off season and feeling like you can make a huge amount of progress.
“That has helped us in the past and we have done pretty well at World Cups and we have tended to do well in Six Nations following World Cups as well.”
Gatland said some coaches would joke “‘what is going to happen today? What is going to be the next thing that is thrown at us?'” during the challenges over the last 12 months.
“I think there has definitely been a line in the sand that has been drawn under that and if we can make the semi-finals it would be a huge achievement for this group of players and the coaches who have done a great job,” he said.
“I know there are some people in some teams out there who won’t want to face a Wales team when they start playing with confidence and start having momentum.
“That is when we are at our most dangerous, we are starting to look that way at the moment.”
– ‘Wales are favourites’ –
Gatland made six changes to the team that beat Georgia 43-19 to ensure Wales finished the pool phase unbeaten with 19 points from a maximum 20.
Jac Morgan is welcomed back on the flank as skipper, while Dan Biggar and Liam Williams have both shaken off injuries for starting spots at fly-half and full-back.
Aaron Wainwright fills in at No 8 in the absence of Taulupe Faletau, who broke his arm against the Georgians.
Argentina coach Michael Cheika made two changes to his team, bringing in Tomas Cubelli at scrum-half and Facundo Isa at No 8, the latter to make up for the absence of the injured Pablo Matera.
Like Wales, Los Pumas are also seeking a third appearance in the semi-final of the World Cup having made the last-four stage at the 2007 and 2015 tournaments.
Cheika, who guided Australia to the 2015 final, said that “Wales are favourites and that’s pretty clearly obvious, everyone’s made that point to us bar our Argentine supporters.
“We know that we’re going to have to do something different, something special around the game on Saturday so that we can be competitive with them, but I’m a huge believer in the team.
“They’ve felt a bit of that expectation of trying to make it through and I think they’ll really enjoy Saturday and from the work we’ve done I feel like they’ll feel like they’re ready.”