It has been described as the most open Rugby World Cup ever, with as many as six teams given a chance of lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy on November 2nd. But can Wales be realistic contenders in Japan?
Richard Morgan, who’s covering the tournament for ITV Cymru Wales, assesses Welsh chances.
So, the stage is set, the hard yards done on the training paddock, the strategies formulated in the team room. But how will Wales fare when the talking stops and the action starts in Toyota on Monday morning?
No one can say they haven’t prepared well. Three months after the extended squad first met at the Vale Hotel - gruelling camps in Switzerland and Turkey under their belts - this group are in tip-top shape. A recent 14 match-winning streak should also mean confidence is high, despite three defeats from four warm up matches this summer.
Even the Rob Howley affair, which saw the Wales backs coach sent home after being accused of breaking World Rugby rules by betting on the game, shouldn’t disrupt preparations too much. Much of the framework for the Georgia game was already in place, and Howley’s replacement Stephen Jones, no.10 in 2011, will be very much at home in the Gatland set-up.
So now we wait to see what Wales can do, now they finally find themselves in tournament rugby. At a media conference last week, Gatland said his teams tend to improve the longer they’re together. History suggests that’s true.
After a shocking first half against France in the Six Nations, Wales went on to win the Grand Slam. They’ve also looked impressive in previous World Cup campaigns, none more so than in 2011, when a Sam Warburton-led side went all the way to the semi-final.
The so called ‘age profile’ of the squad also bodes well. The team to face Georgia is the oldest ever starting XV Wales have fielded at a World Cup, with an average age of 28 years and 331 days. This, says the Head Coach, is ‘no mistake.’ After 4 years of building towards this tournament, Wales have an enviable blend of youth and experience.
But are they good enough to emulate the class of 2011 and reach the last four, or potentially go one better? They’ll have to be at their best.
First, they face the threat of Georgia, themselves no mugs and only narrowly beaten by Wales in 2017. Later, there are games against Fiji – authors of the ‘nightmare in Nantes’, which saw Wales dumped out in 2007 – and pool minnows Uruguay.
The really big game looms next Sunday: Australia v Wales in Tokyo, with the winners odds-on to top the pool, and most likely meet France or Argentina in the quarter-finals.
The losers will probably take on Eddie Jones’ England. Wales won’t fear the ‘old enemy,' but they’d surely rather line up against blue shirts than white ones in Oita next month.
Should Wales reach the last four, without too many casualties, and with confidence flowing through their veins, they’d fancy their chances against anyone.
Their recent week-long stint at number one in the world rankings raised eyebrows, and perhaps justifiably so, but Gatland’s men weren’t well- rated for nothing: in the last year or so, they’ve beaten all the world’s top teams, except for New Zealand.
Most of those wins were founded on stifling defence, and you feel Wales will have to find an extra attacking dimension to beat the best sides. Warren Gatland says they haven’t shown their full hand yet: we’re about to discover what he’s got up his sleeve.
Perhaps recent defeats and disruptions will help. Wales like to go ‘under the radar’, and have been adept at springing surprises during Gatland’s tenure. Three Grand Slams and a Six Nations Championship title make for an impressive CV, but there’s one thing missing. Can Wales add the World Cup to the list, in the New Zealander’s last campaign?
To do so will require monumental effort, and a fair slice of good fortune. We can certainly expect plenty of the former.