Rugby World Cup Profile: Wales

Date published: September 2 2015

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With the 2015 Rugby World Cup now just days away, we take a closer look at each of the competing nations. Next up…

WALES

Nickname: The Dragons

World Cup track record:  
Wales reached the semi-finals for the second time in their history in 2011, going agonisingly close to beating France, 24 years after they had been knocked out in the last four by New Zealand. In between there have been some low moments, losses to Western Samoa in 1991 and 1999 and a pool defeat to Fiji in 2007, standing out.

1987: Third place
1991: Pool Phase
1995: Pool Phase
1999: Quarter-finals
2003: Quarter-finals
2007: Pool Phase
2011: Fourth place

2011 World Cup: Coming into the tournament with low expectations, Wales surprised everyone with their young side. A narrow defeat to South Africa in the pool stages showed what they were capable of, before they beat Ireland in the quarter-final. Their tournament will be remembered for Sam Warburton's red card in the first half of the 9-8 loss to France for a tip tackle on Vincent Clerc, and they went on to lose the third-place play-off to Australia.

World Cup Stats: P32, W18, D0, L14

– Most RWC appearances: Gethin Jenkins (15)
– Most appearances: Gethin Jenkins (114)
– Top RWC points scorer: Neil Jenkins (98)
– Top points scorer: Neil Jenkins (1049)
– Top RWC try scorers: Shane Williams (10)
– Top try scorer: Shane Williams (58)

Form: The Six Nations began disastrously with a home defeat to an injury-hit England side, but Wales responded well to win their four remaining games, including beating eventual champions Ireland. They finished the tournament by running up a massive score in Italy, but it wasn't enough on a crazy final weekend. That followed a relatively successful November in which they picked up a rare win over a southern hemisphere giant, beating South Africa. Wales were defeated by Ireland in their first warm-up match, fielding a weaker side than usual, but the return of their first-choice players resulted in a win over Ireland in Dublin three weeks later.

Coach: Warren Gatland has been in charge since 2008 overseeing a very successful period for the Welsh side. While he doesn't enjoy universal support, with a very one-dimensional game plan, Gatland has won two Grand Slams and a further Six Nations title, as well as leading Wales to a World Cup semi-final. The former Waikato hooker had previously enjoyed spells with Ireland and Wasps, but has struggled for recognition in his homeland, where he missed out on a Super Rugby head coaching job. He was also in charge of the Lions' successful tour of Australia in 2013.

Captain: Seemingly a veteran despite being just 26 years old, Sam Warburton will be out to make amends after the way his last World Cup finished. The openside flanker was red-carded midway through the first half of the loss to France for a tip tackle. He responded well by helping Wales to Six Nations success the following year, and leading the Lions to victory in Australia. He has missed a number of games in the last few seasons because of injury, but will lead the team once more with the support of experienced campaigners like Alun-Wyn Jones and Gethin Jenkins.

Key players: No kicker has been more valuable over the last four years than Leigh Halfpenny, who seems to be able to knock over penalties and conversions from anywhere in the opposition half, and occasionally his own. Given Wales' reliance on penalties, he is vital to the team, with his ability under the high ball also very handy. Alongside Halfpenny in the back three, George North provides the real cutting edge in the Wales backline, provided he has recovered from the speight of concussions that kept him out of the second half of the season.

Up front Samson Lee's fitness could be decisive in Wales' hopes of reaching the knock-out stages. Currently their only international-quality tighthead is recovering from a torn Achilles. It will be tough for him to be at his best for the pool stages, but if he is, he could give Wales the platform they so desperately need to beat England or Australia. If he weren't to make it, Tomas Francis will have a major part to play, having performed relatively well for Exeter this season and on debut against Ireland, particularly in the set-piece.

Profile: One of rugby's heartlands, Wales have undergone a renaissance of sorts in recent years after a long fallow period in the 80s and 90s. A young generation of players exceeded expectations four years ago, but arrive in 2015 with plenty of experience under their belts.

They don't have the dashing flair of the famous team of the 70s, not least because Warren Gatland's game plan doesn't lend itself to flowing back moves. Instead, Wales can put out a team of giant backs and athletic forwards as they try to batter sides into submission, relying on superior fitness to make the difference. It's been relatively successful against northern hemisphere opposition, but against the big three down south, Wales have been appalling in the last eight years, with a run of ten straight losses to the Wallabies. Despite a win over South Africa last November, there is a feeling that Wales' rugby by numbers game comes up short against the very best teams, and the question will be whether Gatland can come up with an alternative. 

He has relied on an excellent scrum in recent years, which might not be available on this occasion with Adam Jones retired and Gethin Jenkins not the force of old. In contrast, the lineout seems to have improved, after years of being a weak link, while Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar offer two very reliable kicking options. 

There doesn't seem to be the same strength in depth as some of the very top sides however, and a poor record against Pacific Island teams is a concern with a potential banana skin match-up with Fiji coming between clashes with England and Australia.

Samson Lee's presence will be key up front, while the loss of Jonathan Davies to a torn ACL hurts in the backs. However in Scott Williams, Wales have a very capable back-up. The run of close losses to Australia will likely have to come to an end though if Wales are to progress to the knock-out stages.

Prospects in 2015: The toughest group of the lot with England and Australia providing a huge challenge. Wales can beat either on their day, but their woeful record against Australia, combined with a tough trip to Twickenham, might just see them go home in the pool stages.

Fixtures:

20 Sep – 14:30: v Uruguay, Cardiff

26 Sep – 20:00: v England, Twickenham

1 Oct – 16:45 v Fiji, Cardiff

10 Oct – 16:45 v Australia, Twickenham

 
 

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