The veteran Kiwi is looking to guide Wales into their third semi-final appearance after the momentum gained from winning Pool C.
Looking to replicate last-four finishes in 2011 and in 2019, Gatland believes his side’s confidence is growing as they approach what will be a likely physical contest with the side known as ‘Los Pumas’.
Such has been the turnaround under the former British & Irish Lions coach from a side languishing near the bottom of the Six Nations table in March, to contenders for the Webb Ellis trophy this month, not even the most optimistic of fan would have predicted the journey the heights the Welsh have hit, with many predicting an early exit in the group stages.
This is the Gatland effect, however, where belief and desire are instilled within a camp switched on to the same wavelength. Pragmatic as ever, Gatland has brought a winning mentality once more to Wales. Youngsters excel under his leadership and experienced players respect and believe in his mindset and methods.
A key factor though to Wales’ performances in France has been the assemblance of a defensive core that hasn’t appeared overnight and not been seen since the loss of Sean Edwards out of the coaching fold.
Built on months of sheer graft within a crucifying training camp environment in Switzerland and France, Wales’ fitness levels have shown through in their performances. In particular, the 40-6 dismantling of Australia which showed a clinical edge and when at times under pressure the ability to absorb heavy pressure and counter using devastating pace on the break to punish opponents.
Wales now face the task of living up to the tag of being overwhelming favourites for their quarter-final clash with Argentina something Gatland is certainly not phased about, with the Kiwi relishing the prospect of facing the South Americans.
“I think the first challenge is the pressure you’re under, firstly to make the knockout stages. That’s the biggest hurdle to get over,” said Gatland.
“The quarter-final then poses pressure as you’re either here until the end of the tournament or you’re going home on Monday. We’re not ready to go home yet.”
“It’s exciting to enter the knock-out stages of the tournament, and we are ready for the challenge of a quarter-final. All our preparation has been geared to getting to this spot and we are very much relishing the opportunity.
“I think that they’ve had some tight contests. There wasn’t a lot between them and Samoa. They’ll have been disappointed against England. They probably played too much rugby after the England red card. They’ve been more pragmatic since then.
“They are very passionate and that’s why they’ve won big games in the past against big teams. They don’t give up and they stay in the fight. We’ve got a huge amount of respect for them and we’re in for a big challenge.
“We’re expecting them to come hard at us and be physical. We talk about being on the edge mentally. You can’t be there every week. It’s how close you get to that. We’ve been there in a couple of games and off it a bit in others. I’m expecting we’ll be right up there with that physical challenge.
“If we make the semi-final, it would be a huge achievement for this group. I know there are some teams out there who won’t want to face a Wales team with confidence and momentum.”
Both fly-half Dan Biggar and full back Liam Williams will take their place in the starting XV after concerns over their relevant injuries, but the game will come too soon for Gareth Anscombe who is ruled out with a groin injury.
“Liam [Williams] is fine. He took quite a severe knock on his knee. He took full part in training today. Dan [Biggar] is the same. Gareth [Anscombe] is up and running, fingers crossed if things go well, he’s in contention for next week,” continued Gatland.
“In terms of contingency, that would have been Leigh Halfpenny at full-back who is defensively and positionally so good. We could move Louis [Rees-Zammit] to full-back and put Rio [Dyer] on the wing. But we didn’t have to go through that process as we were confident.”
Wales make six changes in all with Tommy Reffell retaining his place in the side after impressing against Georgia with Jac Morgan regaining the captaincy, whilst regulars Gareth Davies, George North, and Adam Beard are recalled after being rested for the last Pool C match.
“There was a really healthy debate with the coaches about which way we went. Did we go with the traditional six with more size? But we felt that the way that Tommy [Reffell] had played, the turnovers and the breakdown, that will be competitive on the weekend,” explained Gatland.
“It was about getting our best players on the field. I spoke to Jac, and he was comfortable moving to six. I said it was tough on him as I felt he’s been the best seven at this tournament. It’s not something we want to replicate long-term. We may make a different decision if we make the semi-finals.”
Wales XV to face Argentina: L Williams; Rees-Zammit, North, Tompkins, Adams, Biggar, G Davies, G Thomas, Ellias, Francis, Rowlands, Beard, Morgan (captain), Reffell, Wainwright.
Replacements: Lake, Domachowski, Lewis, Jenkins, Tshiunza, T Williams, Costelow, Dyer.
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