Wales ready to banish the memory of 2011 French heartbreak

While recent history might suggest Warren Gatland’s side have the wood on France, every Welsh rugby fan has a slightly longer memory than that.

While recent history might suggest Warren Gatland’s side have the wood on France, every Welsh rugby fan has a slightly longer memory than that.

On Sunday in Oita the two Guinness Six Nations rivals meet in a World Cup quarter-final. This is only the second time the two great rivals have met in the tournament, and few need reminding of the first.

We are of course talking about THAT 2011 semi-final, you know, the one with the Sam Warburton red card, the Mike Phillips try and the late Welsh heartbreak.

So while Wales have won seven of the eight meetings since that rainy day at Eden Park, the wounds are still fresh.

“The 2011 game probably hurts still for the players involved,” admitted Warren Gatland this week.

There are three men starting on Sunday who also lined up that day in Auckland.

Alun Wyn Jones remains in the second row and is now the skipper, Jonathan Davies was in the centres and a fresh-faced George North was on the wing.

North has made a habit of scoring big tries against France since then, the interception earlier this year stands out as does the 2013 kick chase that prompted his father to run onto the pitch in celebration.

But in that 2011 semi-final, Wales were wasteful with the chances that came their way, James Hook the most guilty off the kicking tee while Morgan Parra slotted three penalties for Les Bleus.

Hook was replaced in the second half by Stephen Jones, and it is fitting that Jones is back in business this time around but now as the team’s attack coach.

“It’s great fuel to drive you forward to achieve your goals,” said the former British & Irish Lion.

“It was a tight game. Even when we were down to 14, we battled hard and it still could have gone either way.

“This is a different group of players, some were involved that day but the vast majority weren’t. You look at the recent games against France and the boys have had some good success.”

Indeed, this is a different side now.

Shot through with the experience of Lions like Jones, North and Davies, but with fresh blood like Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams, Josh Navidi and Aaron Wainwright.

They beat all before them to claim a Grand Slam earlier this year, Shaun Edwards’ well-drilled defence the foundation block for the clean sweep.

And out here in Japan, they face France after going four from four in the pool stages, the first time they have ever done that.

Confidence is high, and for Liam Williams it is entirely understandable.

The Saracens star has won the Grand Slam, the Champions Cup and the Premiership – all this calendar year.

All that is missing for the perfect quadruple is the William Webb Ellis Cup – and the full-back is confident his side have a date with destiny.

“There’s only one thing we think we can do and that is win [the World Cup],” he said..

“Four wins from four games so far has been good and exactly what we aimed for at the start of the campaign.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve got the easy route to the World Cup but we’ve got France next and we need to beat them to be looking at the bigger picture. I then think we can go on and win it.”

But they cannot afford to get ahead of themselves.

Les Bleus always seem to come good for the World Cup.

They have made the final three times before, while Wales have never advanced beyond the semis.

But in this, Gatland’s farewell tournament after 11 years of consistent class at the helm, past lessons have been learned.

“We have a pretty good record against France, but they are a tournament team, people write them off and then they produce a performance no one expects.

“We know how hard it will be, they have quality individuals and seem to thrive in quarter-finals and semi-finals. It will be tough but we will thrive on that. We seem to play better against better sides.

“We cannot take for granted our recent good record against France, we have to focus on Sunday. They will be a little fresher than us, but we feel battle hardened. They are undefeated like us so it should be a great match.”

Out of the Ashes of that 2011 defeat, something special might just be growing.