Wales' coach Warren Gatland faced one of the toughest selection processes of his career when he sat down to pick the team to face on Ireland on Saturday. But he wasn't complaining.
“Sometimes, in the past, we didn’t have a huge playing base in Wales, so if you’ve had three or four key injuries it’s not always about who you’re going to leave out but who you’re going to pick in certain positions,” said the New Zealander, who had a full squad of fit players to choose from for the quarter-final clash.
“It’s a great position to be in to be having to make hard calls about who you leave out.”
After deliberating over his selection for several hours, Gatland made four changes to the side that beat Fiji last weekend, naming a youthful, attack-orientated line-up for the sudden-death match at Wellington Regional Stadium.
Shane Williams returns from a leg injury to take his place on the left wing, with George North shifting across to the right wing and Leigh Halfpenny to full back.
Jonathan Davies has been named at outside centre, Dan Lydiate at flanker and Alun Wyn Jones in the second row in the other changes to the side.
Gatland believes his team is a more well-rounded outfit than any other he has been able to field.
“The nice thing is I feel we have a balance we haven’t had before,” he said.
“We’ve got players who can get us across the gain line, we’ve got pace out wide, we’ve got a pretty special youngster (in wing George North), we’ve got loose forwards that can carry, loose forwards that can compete on the ball, a couple of big second rows and a more experienced front row, as well.”
Gatland said Wales’ new-found attacking mentality had emerged from the youth that is interspersed throughout the 22, including 19-year-old wing North, 24-year-old Rhys Priestland at fly half and captain Sam Warburton, who celebrated his 23rd birthday on Wednesday.
“What’s been great about this World Cup is we’ve got a lot of youngsters with no fear factor. They’ve got no history, as well. We’ve just encouraged them to make the right decisions,” Gatland said.
“We’ve talked about times we want to be smart, we’ve got to play territory, we’ve got to play weather conditions, but if you feel there’s an opportunity to move and play we want to encourage that.”
He believes the intensity of the younger players has inspired the older squad members to lift their game to another level.
“What’s been great is some of the older players know they’ve got youngsters on their heels that are really biting at their ankles. That’s brought the best out of some of our older, more experienced players,” he said.
Gatland made special mention of flanker Lydiate’s unlikely recovery from an ankle injury suffered in the pool match against Samoa, to force his way back into Saturday’s starting XV.
“The initial prognosis on Dan wasn’t positive at all. It was very likely we were going to give him 48 hours and probably have to send him home,” Gatland said.
“I’ve already commentated on the fact that he didn’t sleep for 72 hours, icing his leg every two hours. It’s shown to us what a great kid he is and what a fantastic professional in terms of being able to prepare himself and getting back available for selection.”