State of the Nation: Wales

George North celebrates 24/9/2023
Warren Gatland’s Wales record in the Guinness Six Nations the year after a World Cup is exceptional – two Grand Slams and one runner-up finish.

Warren Gatland’s Wales record in the Guinness Six Nations the year after a World Cup is exceptional – two Grand Slams and one runner-up finish.

So after a solid World Cup campaign in which Wales came through the group stages unbeaten before falling narrowly short in the quarter-final against Argentina, the question now is whether they can reach those heights once more.

It has been a year of turnover for Wales, starting with Gatland’s return before a host of the country’s greatest-ever players have called time on their international careers – Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric before the World Cup, while Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny have followed suit.

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But with a new crop of players having taken their opportunity in France, there is reason for optimism for those in red.

World Cup performance

Drawn in the most open pool of the World Cup, Wales knew that there was a path to the knockout stages open to them, but only if they hit the ground running.

Their opening clash with Fiji in Bordeaux was one of the games of the tournament, Wales recovering from conceding a couple of tries in three minutes in the first half to seemingly have the game wrapped up.

But from 32-14 up and a bonus point in the bag with less than ten minutes to go, they found themselves hanging on as Fiji roared back, a Semi Radradra dropped ball as he was about to race over, greeted to huge sighs of relief by Wales.

From there, they battled past surprise package Portugal, Taulupe Faletau with the bonus-point try when the clock was in the red of a 28-8 win.

Then came the performance of the tournament for Wales. Taking on an Australia side who had to win to keep their own knockout hopes alive, Wales showed their defensive steel in the first half, leading 16-6 despite spending much of the first 40 minutes on the back foot.

That appeared to drain the hope out of their opponents and in the second half, Wales romped clear, winning 40-6, the first time they had beaten Australia by more than seven points since the 1970s.

A final 43-19 win over Georgia, with a quarter-final spot already wrapped up, was tighter than the scoreline suggested, but Louis Rees-Zammit’s hat-trick allowed Wales to pull away.

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There will be regrets about the quarter-final clash with Argentina. Wales led 10-0 in that one but allowed Argentina to kick their way back into it, with a late intercept try from Nicolas Sanchez adding some gloss as the South Americans came through 29-17.

Standout performers

With five tries in his maiden World Cup, Louis Rees-Zammit reminded everyone of just how dangerous his pace can be. Once he is away, there is no one who can catch him.

More impressive though, was new skipper Jac Morgan, who shone in the No.7 jersey and looks to have nailed down a place in the back row for the long-term. He started the tournament as co-captain with Dewi Lake, but in the big games, it was Morgan who took on the leadership duties each time.

A menace over the ball, comfortable ball in hand, and even chipping in with two brilliant kicks – one to set up a try and another a 50:22 – Morgan looks to have it all.

A word also for Nick Tompkins in the midfield. He was not guaranteed a place in the squad when the expanded group was named initially but ended the tournament as one of the first names on the team sheet.

Departing players

There will be a lot of caps to replace in 2024, with the quartet of Jones, Tipuric, Biggar and Halfpenny each Test centurions.

Add in Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe, who are both heading over to Japan, and Gatland will have to find some replacements in plenty of positions.

Potential call-ups

The squad that travelled to France was a mix of experience and youth, so a lot of the newer faces in that group will take on bigger roles going forwards.

Sam Costelow is not a new face, and even featured in the quarter-final. He now looks to be next in line for the Wales No.10 jersey following the retirement of Biggar and departure of Anscombe.

Perhaps the most intriguing call will come at full-back, where Williams and Halfpenny have had a monopoly on the position for more than a decade. Rees-Zammit could switch across, as he has done in the past, but watch out for Cardiff youngster Cameron Winnett – a standout for Wales Under-20s last year.

Sticking with those Under-20s, it is a matter of when not if Morgan Morse gets the nod, although with two more years of eligibility at that level, 2024 may come a bit too soon for him.

We will also likely see Taine Plumtree come back into contention, the flanker having impressed in the World Cup warm-ups before injury ruled him out of the tournament itself.

Guinness Six Nations prospects

After a much-improved showing in the World Cup – following a fifth place in the 2023 Guinness Six Nations – Wales will head into 2024 with confidence.

As ever with Gatland sides, a fast start will be key, and the opening weekend sees them welcome Scotland to Cardiff in what should be an intriguing battle. The Scots earned a record win over Wales in last year’s Championship so there will be no shortage of motivation.

Talking of motivation, a trip to Twickenham in Round Two will provide plenty more, with Wales keen to knock off the World Cup semi-finalists.

Rounds 3 and 4 see Wales travel to defending champions Ireland before hosting 2022 Grand Slam winners France, having struggled against both sides in recent years.

And they then finish at home to Italy, two years after that historic Azzurri win in Cardiff and desperate to avoid a repeat.

2024 Guinness Six Nations fixtures

February 3: Wales v Scotland, Principality Stadium, Kick-off 4:45pm

February 10: England v Wales, Twickenham, Kick-off 4:45pm

February 24: Ireland v Wales, Aviva Stadium, Kick-off 2:15pm

March 10: Wales v France, Principality Stadium, Kick-off 3pm

March 16: Wales v Italy, Principality Stadium, Kick-off 2:15pm