WALES coach Warren Gatland has pinpointed finely-tuned fitness levels as a key factor behind his side’s current success.
Wales yesterday climbed into the top five of world rugby before their twin assault on the RBS Six Nations title and Grand Slam glory.
A dramatic 19-12 victory over England at Twickenham on Saturday not only clinched the Triple Crown for Gatland’s squad, but also saw them make a move in the International Rugby Board world rankings.
Wales are fifth behind world champions New Zealand, Australia, France and South Africa after putting themselves two home wins away from a second unbeaten Six Nations campaign of Gatland’s four-year reign.
The top four countries at the end of this year will be the seeded teams at the World Cup in England in 2015.
Much has been made of the Wales players’ supreme fitness honed at punishing pre-World Cup and Six Nations training camps in Poland, and it continues to serve them well.
“I think we are pretty good conditioning-wise,” Gatland said. “I think that the fitter you get, your skills improve as well and your decision-making improves.
“I have prioritised fitness for the whole four years really, and there have been times when the players have come into a Wales camp knowing they are not really in good enough shape to take on other teams.
“The significant turning point for us was the preparation for the World Cup, when we basically hammered home the conditioning and the fitness.”
The World Cup semi-finalists will secure Six Nations silverware if they beat Italy and principal title rivals France in Cardiff next month, and Gatland believes their tense Twickenham triumph cannot be understated.
“I think it is a significant result,” he added. “To win and come through games like that does give you the self-belief, because it was a dogfight.
“We’ve now come through two games like that in this championship, at Twickenham and in Ireland.
“Perhaps in the past we would have capitulated [at Twickenham] or lacked that self-belief, but there is an attitude now that the players back their conditioning and never give up.”
Wales ended the England clash with eight players aged 23 or under on the pitch, including match-winner Scott Williams and skipper Sam Warburton, and Gatland is enthused about what the future might hold.
“I think we are going to be a good team,” he added. “We’ve got the attributes you are looking for to be a top-quality side – big, fast, good shape and reasonably skilful – so we’ve got a chance of being a really good side.”
“We’ve also got younger players showing maturity beyond their years, and they don’t have that fear factor at the moment.”