No player epitomises how this Wales team has been transformed over the last four years more than full-back Liam Williams, writes Paul Eddison.
While Warren Gatland’s side made the quarter-finals in 2015, and came within five minutes of a second successive semi-final before falling to South Africa, they were never truly contenders to win the competition.
Injuries had crippled them almost before the tournament began, and the gap to eventual champions New Zealand, in particular, was too wide to bridge.
Fast-forward four years and they look every bit like potential finalists, particularly following a thrilling win over Australia in Tokyo.
In the last year alone Wales have gone on a record win streak, won a third Grand Slam under Gatland and even briefly reached the top of the world rankings.
At the last World Cup Williams was still establishing himself in the Welsh side, still clearly number two behind Leigh Halfpenny at full-back, but versatile enough to fill in on the wing.
When Halfpenny went down on the eve of the tournament, Williams stepped up, but his own tournament was cut short by injury in the final pool game against Australia.
On that occasion Wales threw everything they could at the Wallabies but could not find a way through. On Sunday Australia were the team on the offensive, Wales doing enough to hold them off.
The final blow was struck by Williams. With his team 29-25 to the good and with barely a minute to go, Australia had worked their way into the 22 and were looking to go over for a fourth, match-winning try.
It was then that the full-back took a chance and pinched the decisive turnover as Wales got the better of their biggest rivals to stay on course for top spot in Pool D.
He explained: “The turnover at the end, I was quite close to the ball and there was an opportunity so I just got my head in and got the steal, so I’m happy.”
That turnover was all the more impressive when you consider that ten minutes earlier Williams had been hobbling around having rolled his ankle.
Tackled from behind after clearing a ball, there were fears that Williams had done some serious damage, but as he says ‘these legs do their own thing’.
Lucky for Wales that they do. Williams is no longer the back-up to anyone. So impressive has he been over the last four years that he started all three Tests for the Lions in New Zealand in 2017, and he has similarly leapfrogged Halfpenny in the pecking order for Wales too.
At club level, Williams was one of the standout performers for Saracens on their way to the domestic double and he has few, if any, peers at full-back in world rugby.
Wales have progressed since 2015 because they have greater depth to cope with the attritional nature of a competition played at such intensity.
And in Williams they have a player who has gone from useful contributor to among the world’s best.
More than that, Williams has that drive that ensures he is never satisfied, even after a win over Wales’ biggest pool rivals.
He explained: “That’s two from two but we’ve got another two to come. There were a couple of things, we started the game really well but didn’t play as much as we’d like in the second half. We’ll go back to the drawing board on that and look when we get into training next week.
“The key when Australia got back to within one was to hold onto the ball. I think we shut up shop a little early in the second half and I don’t think that’s the way to play it. We should have played more and put them under a bit of pressure.
“We looked at them in the week and we knew they were a big kicking threat, we nullified that quite well. There were some sketchy times but it was about looking after the ball, tackling and I was lucky enough to get the turnover at the end.”
Despite what Williams says, there was more to that turnover than just luck. The hours of hard work with Wales defence coach Edwards, not to mention Gatland, have paid off.
With a potential quarter-final against France on the horizon, and a route to the final that may also include a rematch with the Springboks, the work may just pay off for Wales too.
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