Their narrowly fought 13-6 win over England at the Principality Stadium was enough to see them leapfrog New Zealand – despite the All Blacks’ resounding 36-0 triumph over Australia – at the top of the world rankings.
It is the first time since 16 November 2009 that the back-to-back World Cup winners have been knocked off their perch, but it all could have been so different, with ramifications inducing bean-counting and head-scratching aplenty.
Entering the weekend’s rugby, there were four sides in the mix for the no.1 spot: New Zealand, Wales, England and – at a giant stretch – Ireland.
The situation was thus: a Wales win would see them top, regardless of results elsewhere, while the same would have applied for a 15-point England victory; New Zealand would remain top with an England win by any smaller margin, while Ireland would hit the front – despite not playing – if there was to be a draw in both matches.
As it were – although England came close to scrambling a late tie in Cardiff – it was Wales who did the business and reached the summit for now.
And though Warren Gatland’s men made Welsh history at the Principality, players and coach alike were doing their best to dampen things down, citing the rankings as merely an added bonus.
In fact, Dragons and Wales back row Ross Moriarty was not even aware of the achievement post-match.
“Are we?” he enquired with surprise upon being informed of the news by an interviewer.
“We’ll see after the World Cup where we stand, but it’s not a bad statement. It’s great, we’re the first Welsh team to be classed as world no.1 ever, so it’s something to be proud of.”
And Gatland himself was even more unequivocal in dismissing its significance with the World Cup looming large.
“It’s nice for a day but we won’t be shouting from the rooftops about it,” he said.
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) August 18, 2019
“We’ve got to keep things in perspective. Lots of journalists will be out there saying “this is a joke” – probably Kiwi journalists more than anyone! It’s just a number.
“We’re not making a big fuss of it. We’ll keep it in our pocket and go from week to week.”
But the race for supremacy is by no means over; one consequence of the fact that so many teams were in with a shout of reaching no.1 is that the rankings are now tighter than ever.
Wales’ win means that their margin at the top is just 0.03 points, their 89.43 just a modicum more than New Zealand on 89.4, while Ireland remain third on 88.69, South Africa leap into fourth on 86.83 and England fall to fifth on 86.79.
The new top-ranked side are off next weekend, a trip to Turkey for a training camp taking the place of another Test match, while New Zealand do not continue their World Cup warm-ups until Tonga come to town on September 7.
That potentially leaves the door open for one of England or Ireland, who go head-to-head at Twickenham, before Wales take on Joe Schmidt’s men the following week.
While it would be a thankless task predicting who rules the roost when the World Cup comes around, one thing is for sure: after New Zealand dominated top spot for the best part of 10 years, they may no longer have things all their own way.