Wales full-back Liam Williams has praised the work ethic behind his country’s transformation from Six Nations strugglers to potential Rugby World Cup quarter-finalists.
Warren Gatland’s troops battled during the northern hemisphere’s premier international competition as they had to settle for fifth position in the standings at the end of the Championship.
This, after they claimed just one victory out of their five matches played – against perennial Six Nations wooden spoonists Italy in Rome.
This year’s Six Nations took place against a backdrop of major financial and contractual uncertainty in Welsh professional rugby, factors which almost led to a player strike as Wales were preparing for their Round Three encounter against England in Cardiff.
Gatland had returned for a second stint as head coach, but there was little opportunity for him to make a positive impact amid such off-field chaos.
Impressive preparation for the World Cup
However, the build-up to their World Cup campaign began in late May as Gatland enjoyed four months of unbroken preparation – highlighted by strenuous training camps in Switzerland and Turkey – leading into Wales’ World Cup opener against Fiji.
And Wales will head into Sunday’s clash against the Wallabies at OL Stadium in Lyon knowing that a victory would see them advance from Pool C into the quarter-finals one game inside the distance.
“We’ve worked hard as a group, everyone,” said Williams, who will make his 87th Test appearance this weekend.
“The pre-World Cup camps were hell, to be honest, but the boys have just been digging in. We are all on the right page.
“If you had said six months ago that we would have played two pool matches and been at the top of the group with 10 points we would have bitten your hand off. We have just got to go and back that up on the weekend.”
A key part of Wales’ revival has been Gatland’s ability to get the best out of his players, something that he achieved repeatedly during his 11-year reign which saw them winning Six Nations titles and Grand Slams while also reaching World Cup semi-finals.
“He doesn’t really change. He has a laugh and joke sometimes, and when it comes down to work, then you just work,” said Williams of Gatland.
“That is what we have done for the last six months, and every other time I have worked under Warren. It doesn’t change too much.
“Many years ago, he knew how to press the right button for me to get a reaction, to get me back playing well.
“Being one of the older heads now, he doesn’t need to press any more buttons. I think he does with a couple of the younger boys, and he knows what ones to press to get the best out of them.
“He just used to blank me! It used to really get on my nerves.
“If I played well, I would be walking past him with a big smile on my face, and he would just walk past me, kind of thing.
“It would really get me annoyed, then I would train in the week, work incredibly hard and play well again, and he would say, ‘I knew you would play well this week’. Little things like that, I guess.”
Excellent fitness levels helped seal win over Fiji
Wales’ excellent fitness levels came to the fore during a thrilling 32-26 victory over Fiji, and they now face a Wallabies outfit on the brink of elimination if they lose.
“The ball was in play was for 38 minutes (against Fiji) which is I think the highest of this Rugby World Cup so far,” Williams added.
“It was a pretty crazy game, and we were glad to come away with the points in the end.
“The ball wasn’t in play as much in the Australia-Fiji game (Australia lost 22-15) – I think it was 11 minutes down compared to our game.
“They (Australia) have just lost to Fiji, so they are going to be going for blood, but we are taking it like any other game in the pool. We are going to try to win.”