Wales are the favourites to win the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Well, that’s what Eddie Jones has claimed, anyway. Warren Gatland’s recruits are currently ranked as the best side on the planet, however, so suggestions that they should be lifting the Webb Ellis trophy come November are hardly ludicrous.
One thing the Welsh have in their locker – which nobody can deny – is grit. They toil away for the full 80, work tirelessly for their teammates, and refuse to keel over. Whether that be the influence of veteran lock Alun-Wyn Jones as captain, or merely a mindset instilled by members of the coaching staff such a Shaun Edwards, the men in red are stern opposition for any outfit.
It is that exact fearlessness, that determination to win, that will serve the side well in Japan. As previous tournaments have shown, having the greatest squad of players does not guarantee success. The New Zealand teams that competed between 1993 and 2007 demonstrated as much. Wales have proved they have the attitude for the big occasions; recall the clinical job they did on Ireland in March, or how they came roaring back against England a month prior. Therefore, their mentality is a potent weapon that should see them press on into the latter stages of the competition.
Of course, a strong will is not all that makes Gatland’s team an intimidating prospect. They have elite-level quality across the pitch. At both tighthead and loosehead prop, they possess experienced, reliable performers. Tomas Francis and Samson Lee make for a mean pairing at number 3, whilst Rob Evans is a master in the loose, as well as at scrum-time.
The eminent Jones cemented his place in the second-row many World Cups ago and his capabilities are well-documented in the rugby world. A wickedly intelligent lock, a leader of men, a wily referee negotiator and an ever-willing worker, he epitomises all that is good about this Welsh lineup. Either of Adam Beard and Jake Ball – both of whom have superior athletic ability than the skipper – would make a fine partner for Jones.
It’s odd to think that Gatland’s backrow has improved since the untimely retirement of Sam Warburton, yet that is the truth of the matter. Justin Tipuric is simply a delight to watch; there seems to be nothing the Ospreys marvel cannot do. Likewise, breakthrough star Josh Navidi adds considerable talent to the pack.
There are few players on this Earth so proficient at stealing opposition ball, though there is one man who actually challenges the Cardiff Blues flanker for the title of best pilferer in Wales – James Davies. Evidently, Gatland is spoiled for choice when it comes to loose forward options, despite the damaging loss of Taulupe Faletau.
He’s also got some strong candidates for the 9 jersey, an exquisite centre partnership in Jonathan Davies and Hadleigh Parkes, and some ferocious wingers capable of punishing the slightest error. However, there is a slight issue at fly-half. Gareth Anscombe was widely considered to have a starting berth secured, but his horrific knee injury has ended any hopes of making it to Japan.
That leaves a choice of either Dan Biggar or Rhys Patchell. When you actually weigh up the virtues of the two, you’d still have to say that Wales have a couple of solid 10s. The former is rarely flustered and can rack up points from the tee all day long, whilst his fresh-faced counterpart provides flare. How effective would it be to begin a match with Biggar and turn to Patchell if things go south? There are certainly worse game-plans.
So, it should be fairly clear that Wales have the personnel to really mount a challenge for glory in east Asia. They have also proved that they can keep their cool when in a heated battle, another key ingredient to success. Additionally, they have a reasonably straightforward route to the last-four (famous last words).
As far as the pool stages are concerned, Uruguay will pose no problems and Georgia are spirited but raw. Fiji are a grenade waiting to explode, though Wales saw them off in 2015 and will expect to do the same this year. And Australia? They have been the bane of Welsh lives for over a decade, but it was the Europeans who emerged victorious when they met last in the 2018 Autumn Internationals. It was imperative that Wales finally shook the monkey off their back and they will demand a similar display of courage in Tokyo.
After the groups will come one of England, France and Argentina. Now, none of these will be walkovers, especially not at a World Cup, where they all have impressive track records. However, Wales will fancy their chances against all of these teams having beaten them all in the last year or so.
Ireland or South Africa appear to be likely semi-final opponents, and again Wales will be unafraid. Avoiding New Zealand is the key for Gatland’s men, and they can steer clear until the final, and once you get there, it could go either way.
Don’t be too shocked to hear ‘Land of Our Fathers’ booming in the distance at quarter-to-twelve on Saturday November 2.
By Ed Alexander