In Focus: Wales

Even a relatively disappointing warm-up campaign cannot disguise the fact that Wales arrive in Japan as one of the teams to beat at the Rugby World Cup.

Even a relatively disappointing warm-up campaign cannot disguise the fact that Wales arrive in Japan as one of the teams to beat at the Rugby World Cup.

2019 has been a magnificent year so far and Warren Gatland will be hoping he has saved the very best for last.

Grand Slam champions, and briefly the No.1 side in the world, Wales will head into Pool D full of confidence.

For so long their bete noir, Australia were downed last autumn and if Wales can repeat the dose and avoid the banana skin that is Fiji, then top spot should be theirs for the taking.

Of course, a World Cup brings many challenges along the way – some foreseeable some not.

Gatland’s side lost three of their four warm-up games, but his side are the masters of playing to their own strengths and limiting their errors.

And in the white-hot heat of World Cup rugby, Wales will be an extremely tough nut to crack.

Gatland has spent four years growing the squad depth, and they will be sorely tested with Gareth Anscombe and Taulupe Faletau already ruled out.

But their defensive solidity is their x-factor, they have an inspirational leader in Alun Wyn Jones and an experienced core who have sampled this stage before.

Semi-finalists as recently as 2011, conquerors of hosts England four years ago in the group of death, can Gatland’s side go the whole way this time around?

You cannot start anywhere other than their captain.

The man is Wales’ beating heart, their inspirational talisman and it would appear is going to have to shoulder a very heavy load this World Cup.

Both Cory Hill and Adam Beard are facing fitness races, neither will be available for the first game against Georgia.

And that means Jones will have to go back to back to back first up in the Welsh engine room.

Gatland will have everything crossed that his man comes through unscathed.

Anscombe’s absence and Rhys Patchell’s ongoing concussion problems mean Biggar is the main man once again at a World Cup for Wales.

But the fly-half relishes the spotlight, anyone who remembers Twickenham four years ago knows that, and he has been a man reborn this past season at Northampton Saints.

He was back to his best in a Welsh jersey earlier this summer to down England in Cardiff as well.

Wales cannot win this World Cup on defence alone, and Biggar will be vital to getting the backline humming as the tournament progresses.

You could make a world-class back row out of the men Wales are missing at this year’s World Cup.

Sam Warburton and Ellis Jenkins either side of Faletau would take some stopping.

But such is Wales’ strength in depth in the back row that they still arrive in Japan with a blend the match of most.

And key to it all is Moriarty, the man who has made Faletau’s No.8 jersey his own in recent months.

Moriarty has always punched above his weight and made his breakthrough four years ago on this stage as a back-up to Wales’ more established flankers.

But since then he has come of age at this level, and if he fires – will be pivotal to Wales’ hopes.

Wales have the street smarts to win tight battles, imbued in them by their head coach Gatland.

Robin McBryde is the driving force behind their powerful pack and Bobby Stridgeon’s work as strength and conditioning coach makes them fitter than most.

But if Wales epitomise any of their coaches then it is probably Shaun Edwards, their defensive guru.

After all, it was their ability without the ball that proved decisive in the 2019 Championship.

They only shipped seven tries across five games, two of which came inside the first 23 minutes of the first game to France.

Thereafter, Wales were nigh on unbreakable and that will be cornerstone of any World Cup hopes that they harbour.

Of course the attack is not to be underestimated, Wales are ruthlessly efficient when they get their chances.

And in George North, Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies they have three British & Irish Lions who will be looking to find their top form from the off.

But in Gatland they have a coach who is willing to make the big calls, and a side that never knows when they are beaten.

They produced a record comeback in Paris earlier this year, held off a rampant England in Cardiff and in the past two years have seen off the best the southern hemisphere has to offer with the exception of the All Blacks.

You don’t do that by being one-trick ponies, and Gatland you can be sure will have a few tricks up his sleeve before bowing out, hopefully on top.

This is Gatland’s third World Cup at the helm of Welsh rugby and clearly he knows what he wants from his players.

He and his team have travelled the world to give themselves the best chance out in Japan.

This has included trips to Turkey for the heat and humidity, Switzerland for the altitude and Kitakyushu in Japan for local knowledge.

They have been welcomed with open arms by the local community there, 15,000 fans turned out for their open practice last weekend.

And Gatland continues to innovate in search of those fine margins, his players have been training with balls soaked in baby oil to replicate the sweat expected in these Asian conditions.

Wales are one of the last teams to get going at the World Cup, they have to wait until Monday September 23 for their opener against Georgia.

Georgia gave them a scare a couple of autumns ago but Wales should be locked and loaded and looking to hit the ground running.

Then they face a daunting six-day turnaround before what should be the crunch game in Pool D – against Australia.

The Wallabies had beaten Wales 13 times in a row, including in the Pool stages four years ago, but Wales turned the tide last autumn and victory this time could be key to topping the group.

They then have a long wait to rest and recover before Fiji in Oita the following Wednesday before their final game, against Uruguay only four days later in Kumamoto.

By then Wales will hope their work is done and they can rest some big names and still hope to see off the South American minnows and cruise into the last eight.

If they have topped the Pool, then a quarter-final clash – also in Oita – beckons against the runners up in Pool C.

Should England top that group, that leaves Argentina or France most likely – both of whom Wales would be confident of beating.

Thereafter the path to the final gets complicated, but if they have won their pool and the All Blacks have won theirs, they would not face each other until the final.

Therefore the likes of Ireland or South Africa could lie in wait in a potential final four encounter.

Should Wales slip up in the pool and come second, then it will be England in the quarter-finals most likely and the All Blacks in the semi-finals might lie in wait also.

Topping the group looks to be absolutely pivotal, and Gatland and his charges will be going all out to do so.

Wales v Georgia, Monday September 23, Toyota, 11:15AM Kick Off (all times UK) Australia v Wales, Sunday September 29, Tokyo, 08:45AM KO Wales v Fiji, Wednesday October 9, Oita, 10:45AM KO Wales v Uruguay, Sunday October 13, Kumamoto, 9:15AM KO