WALES are on a crusade which could take them all the way to the World Cup final after an almost unbelievable turnaround in fortunes.

And that crusade is a rugby and a moral one which has parachuted them into only their second World Cup semi-final, their first since the inaugural tournament in 1987. And it could now land them in the final itself.

They dismissed the Irish challenge with a brilliant display of attacking rugby which has had even the hard nosed New Zealand public and pundits purring in appreciation.

Coupled with the earlier demise of Scotland and the failure of England after a pretty dismal campaign it leaves Wales as the standard bearers for the home countries in the rugby world. Astonishing.

And they have done it if not quite out of the blue then certainly out of very little, a winless autumn series a year ago followed by a mediocre fourth placed finish in the Six Nations.

The signs might have been there in the final stage of the World Cup build-up with a backs-to-the-wall performance against England at Twickenham followed by victory in the return and a win against Argentina.

But that gave little indication of the way Wales were to announce their arrival on the biggest stage of all on the other side of the world in New Zealand.

As has been well documented now, they all but got the better of world champions South Africa, then saw off the physical challenge of Samoa before thrashing Namibia and Fiji.

That put them in the quarter-final, their minimum target, against Ireland, a game most believed was too close to call and I for one felt that the experience of the Irish with so many of their stars in the last chance saloon, might just give them the edge.

Far from it as Wales brushed that challenge aside and apart from one sticky moment when Ireland got back to 10-10 it was pretty much plain sailing.

It’s not just the success, but the manner of it. Wales are playing with a style, passion, commitment and balance that is captivating and winning over hearts and minds.

When a critic like former All Blacks great Sean Fitzpatrick – never mind those closer to home – says Wales are the form team of the tournament and are a revelation, then you know something is up.

There is a hunger and a togetherness about this squad which has developed through New Zealand, a kind of inner belief among the players that they want to go out and express themselves, score tries and play some rugby. In a word it is refreshing.

Key to it all apart from the kindred spirit is a very brave and bold selection policy. Coach Warren Gatland has gone for youth as far as he can and he has rewarded those whose form has warranted it while mixing that with a dose of experience.

He hasn’t been slow to give players like Scott and Lloyd Williams a chance, he has put his faith in George North, Rhys Priestland and Dragons trio Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and Luke Charteris and he has made decisive tactical moves.

Moving Leigh Halfpenny from wing to full back, for example, proved a masterstroke, as did the switching of Shane Williams from left to right wing to avoid the twin challenge of Ronan O’Gara and Tommy Bowe.

And surely by now he has silenced those who have continued to clamour for the inclusion of James Hook, particularly at 10, gifted player though he is.

But it hasn’t been just about the rugby – which is where the moral crusade comes in. Now no-one is suggesting Welsh rugby is suddenly whiter than white, not after incidents in Cardiff streets, outside pubs and even a coach suspended after a dust-up.

But something has still happened on this side of the world away from the goldfish bowl, the glare of all the media and publicity in Wales.

While England’s players have been sinking on and off the field with one incident after another, Wales have moved serenely on with a virtual no drinks policy in place, no nightclubbing and a general clean living, responsible attitude.

The player leading this kind of campaign and someone Wales owes a huge debt of gratitude to is a guy who is just 23 – skipper Sam Warburton.

It has been quite amazing to watch him grow on and off the pitch this World Cup. He is the epitome of good leadership, remarkable for someone so young, and he is the one who has led this moral crusade.

While Gatland takes a fair bit of the credit, as do the other coaches and professional staff for that matter, the man who has truly led the way for my money is Warburton.

He has insisted in his quiet, undemonstrative way that Wales express themselves on the pitch and behave themselves off it.

Even the likes of the tempestuous Mike Phillips have taken a lead from him, showing a new kind of maturity and his performance against Ireland was truly world class, not just the try he scored but his entire game.

Jamie Roberts has followed suit with a string of magnificent displays while the entire squad has bought into what Wales are trying to achieve.

Now only one game stands between them and their first appearance in a World Cup final. That just happens to be against France, a true bogy team and one which continually presents Wales with a major challenge.

More of that during the week, but as ever the semi-final will be about which French team turns up.