BEPPU, Japan (AFP) – Warren Gatland believes Wales’ recent record shows they can cope with the burden of expectation as they head into the World Cup quarter-finals as favourites against France this weekend.
Wales have beaten France in seven of their last eight encounters since Les Bleus condemned them to an agonising 9-8 loss in the 2011 semi-finals – a match where then Wales captain Sam Warburton was controversially sent off.
The Welsh have also won 19 of their last 22 Tests, including a national-record 14-game unbeaten run, and completed the pool phase with a perfect four wins out of four.
But Gatland said Wales, who beat Australia 29-25 in their biggest challenge in Pool D, wear the favourites tag lightly.
“Michael Cheika (the Wallabies’ coach) said we were favourites against Australia and we handled that,” the New Zealander said on Friday.
This tournament will mark the end of Gatland’s 12-year reign as Wales coach, with the New Zealander looking to add the Webb Ellis Cup to his glittering list of prizes.
“As coaches and players this is what you do all the hard work and training for,” he said.
“As a coaching group we’ve had a lot of success in big matches when it has really counted and mattered, whether that has been in Grand Slam games, European finals or Premiership finals with Wasps, or even on (British and Irish) Lions tours as well.”
Former Ireland boss Gatland added: “It’s not just about the physical preparation, it’s about being mentally right and those top two inches everyone talks about.
“If you get that right in big games it can often make a big difference.”
Gatland, explaining his approach ahead of Sunday’s knockout match in Oita, said, “You have to bring things that are a little bit different, that teams are not expecting.
“It is going in and making sure you are systematically trying to break down an opposition with the way you have prepared and planned the game.
“We keep working hard. About four of the last seven tries (Wales scored) against France have been situations where we kept working hard to chase, and one of their players has made an error and we have capitalised.”
But Gatland added, “Defensively, (Wales defence coach) Shaun (Edwards) has been a little bit more on edge this week.
“He was not too happy with conceding a try against Uruguay, and he let the players know clearly in the changing room afterwards.”