So, with just over a week to go until the start of the Rugby World Cup, what is the mood in Wales?
Well, in truth, people don’t really know what to hope for from Warren Gatland’s new-look group.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride of a summer, one which featured some upward curves along the way, but ended as it began, amid a sense of trepidation.
Expectations had been pretty low after a deeply disappointing Six Nations, which brought just a solitary win over Italy, against a backdrop of turmoil in the Welsh game.
Yet going into the warm-up campaign, following fitness-forging training camps in Switzerland and Turkey, Gatland was in bullish mode.
He insisted Wales were going to surprise people and do something special.
Wales’ pre-World Cup form
The Kiwi coach was immediately true to his word, with the 20-9 win over England in Cardiff coming as a pleasant surprise to the red-clad faithful. There really should have been a double over the old enemy, given how the return went at Twickenham.
It wasn’t to be, as defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory in the final quarter, but there had been definite positives in the opening two games, with a number of individuals – both familiar and fresh faces – stepping up.
There was talk of Gatland working his magic again amid echoes of the build-up to the 2011 World Cup when a new team emerged during that summer – one which was to go on and do memorable things.
Yet, come the final warm-up against South Africa at the Principality Stadium, reality bit as Wales came back down to earth with a bump. The 52-16 scoreline was a record home defeat at the hands of the Springboks and the heaviest loss in all of Gatland’s 133 games in charge. It was a sobering afternoon.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) August 19, 2023
Then, along came further results to ratchet up the concern. England’s sorry run put Wales’ efforts against them into some context, with their 30-22 loss to Fiji last weekend coming as a particular jolt. The Fijians are, of course, the opening opponents for Gatland’s gang at the World Cup, with the two countries meeting in Bordeaux on Sunday, September 10. It is looking like an increasingly ominous opener.
The south sea islanders are the real deal, a potent mix of power, pace and flair, with the likes of Semi Radradra, Viliame Mata, Waisea Nayacalevu, Levani Botia, Caleb Muntz and wing Selestino Ravutaumada – last weekend’s Man of the Match – among their many weapons.
Their victory at Twickenham was the culmination of an impressive summer campaign. They had already won away to Japan (35-12) and Samoa (33-19), beaten Tonga (36-20) at home and given France a real game out in Nantes.
Mention of Nantes brings back dark memories of Wales’ 38-34 defeat to Fiji in that city on the Loire during the 2007 World Cup – a result that saw them bomb out at the group stage, costing coach Gareth Jenkins his job.
A similar result 16 years on would come as nothing like such a big surprise, and it wouldn’t see the axe falling on Gatland, with WRU boss Nigel Walker having publicly backed him to stay in charge through to the next World Cup in 2027 “whatever happens” at this year’s tournament.
But it would leave Wales facing a real uphill battle to make the knock-out stages, having to beat Australia in Lyon on Sunday, September 24, to reach the last eight.
Now, there is an argument they might well have a better chance of defeating them than the Fijians, given how the Wallabies have fared under new coach Eddie Jones this summer.
The Aussies have suffered five successive defeats to South Africa (43-12), Argentina (34-31), New Zealand (38-7 & 23-20) and France (41-17), resulting in stern questioning of Jones, who responded with a barbed attack on the media. Yet, amid the defeats and the furore, there were some warnings for Wales.
The Wallabies performed really well in the first half against the All Blacks in Dunedin, leading 17-3 at the break, and gave another decent showing in the opening period at the Stade de France last weekend, with their scrum particularly impressive.
Taniela Tupou – the Tongan Thor – and skipper Will Skelton bring a mighty presence up front, while there is real threat behind with the likes of Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Suliasi Vunivalu and Mark Nawaqanitawase. We will get a better idea of where they lie when they take on Fiji in Saint-Étienne on Sunday, September 17.
🗣️"There are few other sides out there capable of this level of ruthlessness in possession, and it’s soul-destroying for opponents."
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) August 27, 2023
So where do Wales lie?
Well, based on the current world rankings, they are officially underdogs in terms of making the quarter-finals. They are now down in tenth, while Australia are ninth and Fiji seventh. Moreover, just one place behind them, in eleventh, you will find another group opponent in Georgia, who recorded a famous victory in Cardiff last November and led Scotland at half-time at Murrayfield on the weekend.
There’s also that record home defeat to South Africa lurking in the memories as an unwanted send-off. But here again, there is some context to consider. It was a very inexperienced Welsh team that took the field, with ten of the starting line-up having ten or fewer caps. In contrast, it was a seasoned and powerful Boks side, while the reigning world champions provided a further reference point by thumping New Zealand 35-7 six days later.
So lots of threads to bring together as you try and assess Wales’ realistic prospects. What we do know is the side Gatland selects to face Fiji will be very different from the one that started against South Africa, with perhaps just three or four survivors.
Potential Wales team for their Rugby World Cup opener
Let’s have a look then at what that team is likely to be.
In the back three, Liam Williams and Louis Rees-Zammit looked nailed on to start, with Josh Adams the favourite to join them, although Dragons winger Rio Dyer did stake a major claim as the shining light in the Boks game.
At centre, it’s a question of who partners George North, with the identity of the 12 indicating the way Wales will look to play. In Johnny Williams, you have the strong ball-carrying option, while Nick Tompkins offers something a bit different with his range of passing.
You would expect Dan Biggar to start at No.10, and the 33-year-old will be more driven and more competitive than ever, with this tournament being his international swansong.
The decision to select just two scrum-halves was one of the main talking points following the announcement of the 33-man squad, and Gatland will be hoping Tomos Williams and Gareth Davies can indeed show the durability he has spoken of as they share the duties.
As for who wears No.9 against Fiji, that depends on whether the coach wants the tempo Williams brings from the start or as an injection later on.
The starting pack
Turning to the front row, it’s a close call between Ospreys Gareth Thomas and Nicky Smith at loosehead prop, with Thomas the slight favourite.
Tighthead is intriguing, as Tomas Francis and Dillon Lewis bring 124 caps-worth of experience between them, but former England international Henry Thomas has made a real impression with his strong scrummaging off the bench in his two cameos since coming on board, so you can’t rule out him having a significant role to play.
As for hooker, that’s heavily dependent on fitness updates, with Dewi Lake (knee) and Ryan Elias (hamstring) both having picked up injuries in the warm-up programme.
Lake is co-captain, indicating his standing within the group, so if he receives the all-clear, logic would suggest him starting. But Elliot Dee has been the form hooker this summer, with his accuracy at the lineout and his workrate, so there is an argument for him wearing No 2, with Lake providing carrying impact off the bench.
At lock, Will Rowlands is a certainty and so important with his power and agility. If Dafydd Jenkins recovers from his knee injury in time, there is a strong case for renewing the partnership that went well against England in Cardiff.
Adam Beard didn’t have the best afternoon in the Twickenham rematch, as the Welsh lineout fell apart, but there has been talk of that being down to an experiment that went awry. Plus, he has been a valued presence under Gatland, so you wouldn’t discount his past endeavours getting him the nod.
Finally, the back row. Much hinges here on the health of Taulupe Faletau. He has been wrapped up in cotton wool all summer as he’s battled to recover from a calf problem. Will he be fit in time to face Fiji and, if so, will he be thrown straight in despite having had no rugby since April? As one of the few genuine world-class players in the squad, the temptation to start him will be great. But, then again, Aaron Wainwright has proved a more than able deputy this summer, so there is that very decent option. As elsewhere, it will be a judgement call.
Jac Morgan – co-captain with Lake – will wear No. 7, but it’s much harder to call the No. 6. The versatile Wainwright knows the position well and would add dynamic athleticism, as well as a genuine lineout target.
Or might Gatland go for the man he knows so well in Dan Lydiate to deliver serial tackling on the blindside, chopping the Fijian carriers down quickly before they can put in their deadly offloads. Decisions, decisions…and plenty of permutations. But one thing is certain. If you offered Welsh fans a quarter-final spot right now, they would bite your hands off.