Wales prepare for life after Warren Gatland following World Cup defeat
|2019 Rugby World Cup bronze final - Wales v New Zealand|
|Venue: Tokyo Stadium Date: Friday, 1 November Time: 09:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Full commentary on BBC Radio Wales, Radio Cymru, BBC Radio 5 Live, plus live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app|
As the sun rose on the final week of the 2019 World Cup on Monday, Wales players and supporters were again left reflecting on what might have been.
The agonising 19-16 semi-final defeat by South Africa in Yokohama meant Wales will battle for bronze against New Zealand next Friday rather than the golden prize of World Cup glory against England 24 hours later.
Wales' journey in Japan has been full of highs and lows over the past seven weeks.
It started with them training in front of 15,000 fans in their adopted city of Kitakyushu but was followed by the controversy of backs coach Rob Howley being sent home before the tournament started because of an alleged betting breach.
Wales shrugged off the disruption to claim five wins before yet another semi-final setback, and their dreams of global success were again dashed in the latter stages.
Warren Gatland now has just one more game in charge before fellow New Zealander Wayne Pivac takes over.
The Gatland effect
Former flanker Martyn Williams was present at the start of the Gatland era, which has yielded three Grand Slams, two World Cup semi-finals and a record 14-match unbeaten run that helped Wales briefly reach world number one.
"Warren is some act to follow. When you think where we were when he came in in 2007, we were in a mess," said Williams.
"It has been an incredible tenure and it has been a sad way to go out again in a semi-final.
"There are young players who have had huge exposure are the highest level in the World Cup. I am more optimistic than pessimistic going forward.
"Wayne Pivac comes in and he has done a fantastic job down at Scarlets. So it's not as if it's the end of an era. There's another World Cup in most of these players."
Another loss to agonise over
What could have been, maybe what should have been.
Once the dust settles, Wales will have that agonising feeling because a tournament finale against England was firmly in their grasp.
Wales centre Jonathan Davies summed up in his emotional post-match interview what failing to make the final meant.
Wales have spent the last 18 months grinding out results when games were close. When it mattered here they could not replicate that clinical edge.
The semi-final will not be remembered for its quality. Wales will want to forget the evening quickly - another World Cup knockout loss to South Africa, mirroring the quarter-final elimination four years ago.
Wales will wonder how they just failed to overcome a limited South Africa side full of power but little ambition.
The Springboks mantra was simple. Stick to a dominant scrum, effective driving lineout and relentless kicking game to break down Wales, and it eventually worked with Handre Pollard's late match-winning penalty.
Wales were more ambitious but only just. You craved a little less kicking and a bit more attacking expansive invention from Gatland's side alongside the game plan of trying to stay with the Springboks.
The South African juggernaut proved one match too far for Wales, even if Gatland disputed that afterwards. The testing tournament had finally taken its toll and Wales' attacking firepower was again absent.
Wales had brutal battles against Australia and Fiji to top Pool D and were seemingly almost running on empty coming into their sixth game.
Gatland's side peaked with victory over Australia in their second group game, but never again reached the heady heights of that fantastic first-half performance in Tokyo.
Their courageous and clinical characteristics were demonstrated in wins against Fiji and France, but the quality on display against the Wallabies was not replicated again.
Casualty list grew and grew
Injuries also scuppered Wales. George North and Tomas Francis were first-half casualties against South Africa to add to the growing list.
Wales lost Gareth Anscombe, Taulupe Faletau and Ellis Jenkins before the tournament started and lock Cory Hill left Japan without playing a game.
Centre Davies injured his knee in the victory over Fiji and missed the quarter-final against France before returning against South Africa, albeit not fully functioning.
- Gatland laments Wales' semi-final defeat
- Report: Wales 16-19 South Africa
- As it happened: Springboks reach World Cup final
Josh Navidi's tournament concluded with a hamstring injury at the last eight stage before the final blow, the accidental training ground collision that saw full-back Liam Williams on crutches with an ankle injury, his World Cup dream ended.
Wales' 'Robocop' Hadleigh Parkes battled on to play six games despite picking up a broken bone in his hand and a shoulder problem in the early stages.
So while Wales might have developed strength in depth over the last two years, it was still not enough at the crunch time.
Breakthrough acts catch the eye
Parkes was one of two players to have started six games alongside wing Josh Adams, the Cardiff Blues wing who equalled Shane Williams' Welsh record of six tries at one World Cup.
Pivac will benefit from other breakthrough acts like Aaron Wainwright, Tomas Williams and Rhys Carre, who all came of age in Japan, with Adams looking extremely likely to finish as the tournament's top try scorer.
Late World Cup wing call-up Owen Lane provides another fresh option, while New Zealand born duo Johnny McNicholl and Willis Halaholo are now available through residency.
At the other end of the scale, Pivac will be hoping inspirational captain Alun Wyn Jones continues to flourish at Test level.
While no immediate international retirement is expected, this fourth World Cup might prove to be Jones' last global tournament and he is not the only one. Ken Owens, Jonathan Davies and Justin Tipuric are all doubtful to be on the biggest stage in four years.
Jones, 34, broke the Wales cap record during the tournament and has now made 142 Test appearances for his country and the British and Irish Lions.
Last hurrah on Friday
Before long-term planning begins, the 2019 World Cup and Gatland's era are not quite over.
New Zealand await in the bronze medal match neither side really wants to be involved in.
At least there will be some sentiment attached to this otherwise irrelevant game in Tokyo on Friday with Gatland and opposite number Steve Hansen taking charge of their last matches for the two countries.
Wales have the chance to emulate their best ever World Cup finish of third and, more pertinently, Gatland will also hope to end his 12-year tenure by becoming the first Wales coach to beat his native New Zealand since 1953.
That would be a fitting end to Gatland's Wales career, just not the perfect conclusion he so desired.
Watch Scrum V World Cup Special on demand.