TOKYO, 2 Nov - Wales had been confident of ending Warren Gatland’s reign as head coach in dream fashion by giving him a send-off back to New Zealand as a world champion.
They had every right to hope having gone top of the world rankings for the first time in their history this year after a 14-match winning streak, which included a third Grand Slam of his 12-year spell in charge.
To ultimately finish fourth at Rugby World Cup 2019 will be seen as the minimum that could have been expected. But Wales are in a far better place now than when Gatland arrived.
"I hope that what we have achieved in the last 12 years, they continue to build on that," the coach said. "It would break my heart if Wales went back into the doldrums."
Wales’s hopes were rocked even before the tournament started when attack coach Rob Howley was forced to return home to face a World Rugby investigation into an alleged breach of their rules. Stephen Jones, who will be part of the new regime, replaced him.
But they topped Pool D with a perfect record including fine wins over Australia and Fiji, before a superb comeback edged them past France in a tight quarter-final.
Then the injuries, which had left them without several key players before the squad had left Wales, began to have an affect with Liam Williams, the Saracens star who had been aiming for his own Grand Slam, suffering an ankle injury.
That crocked list finally took its toll in the semi-final, where South Africa imposed themselves on the Wales team. But it was tight again, and the Springboks needed a late penalty to win it 19-16.
The bronze final against the All Blacks was one game too far for the squad who will be left to wonder what might have been.
Warren Gatland can, as he said, return to New Zealand having put the smile back onto the face of Welsh rugby. He took over at an historic low in 2007 when Wales crashed out of the World Cup in the pool stage after defeat by Fiji and slipped to 10th in the world. But he led Wales to three Six Nations Grand Slams, briefly to No.1 in the world for the first time, two RWC semi-finals and one quarter-final in his three tournaments.
Player of the tournament
Winger Josh Adams’s rapid rise to world-class status has been cemented. His seven tries are a tournament record for a Wales player. Adams had to go to England to get regular rugby with Worcester and had seemingly been overlooked by the Welsh system until Gatland handed him his debut only last year.
Memorable moment off the pitch
It still beggars belief but around 15,000 people packed into Kitakyushu Stadium to watch a Wales training session at their original training camp in Japan. The fans, who had queued for hours in the sun, sang the Welsh national anthem and the Welsh rugby hymn Calon Lan as the players ran out. Astonishing day.
Memorable moment on the pitch
Scrum-half Gareth Davies’s interception and 60-metre sprint to score a vital try in the 29-25 Pool D victory over Australia at Tokyo Stadium that helped them top the pool.
Gatland is taking over at the Chiefs in New Zealand, forwards coach Robin McBryde is moving to Munster while Shaun Edwards, the defence coach, is set to perform a similar role with France. Attack coach Rob Howley is also leaving.
Wayne Pivac will succeed his fellow Kiwi as head coach with his first match on 30 November in Cardiff against the Barbarians, who will be led by Gatland. Jones, Pivac’s No.2 at the Scarlets, will move with him as attack coach having joined the Wales set-up early. That experience could prove vital in the transition period.
Quotes of the tournament
"When I congratulated James and said well done, his reply was, ‘You have finally seen the light, have you?’ He said he was only joking. I loved that. I thought it was brilliant, a great response. I love a bit of banter and I have no problem with comments like that.” - Gatland on James Davies’s response after being picked for his RWC debut against Fiji.
"It's safe to say that's the most people I've ever had watch me train. Or watch one of my club games." - Prop Rhys Carre, the youngest player in the squad and appearing at his first World Cup, on the crowd at the Wales training session in Kitakyushu.
Beat Georgia 43-14 in Toyota
Beat Australia 29-25 in Tokyo
Beat Fiji 29-17 in Oita
Beat Uruguay 35-13 in Kumamoto
Beat France 20-19 in Oita
Lost to South Africa 19-16 in Yokohama
Lost to new Zealand 40-17 in Tokyo
Wales by the numbers
7 - Number of tries scored by winger Josh Adams, breaking the previous Welsh tournament record of six set by Shane Williams in 2007.
134 - Record Wales caps now held by captain Alun Wyn Jones, pictured above with Gatland after the bronze final. With nine British & Irish Lions appearances, his tally of 143 puts him second on the all-time list behind New Zealand’s Richie McCaw (148).
12 - Wales produced their best World Cup comeback. They trailed France 12-0 after just nine minutes of the quarter-final, but rallied to win 20-19 with a late converted try.
1.6m - Average gain by Wales in the semi-final against South Africa (182m from 114 carries), the lowest figure recorded by a team in a Rugby World Cup match.