Could Japan finally bring the Welsh team World Cup glory? Andrew Baldock reports.
Warren Gatland has transformed Wales into a consistent world force during his 12-year reign – but the best could be reserved for last.
New Zealander Gatland will step down as head coach after the World Cup, ending a prolific tenure that has delivered four Six Nations titles and three Grand Slams.
Wales were also World Cup semi-finalists in 2011 – who knows what might have happened had skipper Sam Warburton not been sent off against France? But there is a growing feeling they could eclipse that achievement in Japan.
Gatland’s squad recently had a brief stint as rugby union’s word number one team, while they went on a record 14-Test unbeaten run that only ended in August.
In terms of a World Cup, Wales have never finished higher than third, which they achieved at the inaugural 1987 tournament. But their strength in depth with regard to playing resources is greater than for any World Cup they have contested, with the squad highlighted by global stars like captain Alun Wyn Jones, full-back Liam Williams, wing George North and centre Jonathan Davies.
Wales are favourites to win a pool that sees Australia as their most probable closest challengers, which underlines a sense of expectation that surrounds them.
“We are not hiding away from the expectation, in terms of getting out of your group and seeing who you’ve got in the quarter-finals,” Gatland said. “It’s just one game at a time, and you have also got to understand that any team that gets to the quarter-finals fancies their chances.
“You need a bit of luck, but you need a bit of that confidence and self-belief, and I think we’ve got that.
“We have put in some good performances and had some positive results in the last 18 months. We are a team that can bounce back, and we’re a team that doesn’t give up.”
Wales kick off against Georgia in Toyota City on September 23, followed by a potentially-pivotal appointment with Australia in Tokyo six days later. After that, it is Fiji in Oita and Uruguay in Kumamoto, then back to Oita if they reach the last eight.
Gatland added: “We’ve got to be smart about how we manage those games, in particular with certain players. There are one or two we keep on the bench or keep fresh.”
Wales’ World Cup campaign four years ago saw them dealt a number of injury setbacks, although they still made it to the quarter-finals before suffering a narrow defeat against South Africa.
“Staying injury-free is a good start,” Gatland said. “It’s important to build as you go and be open-minded about looking at the teams you are playing against and what philosophies we have to play against them.
“We had Australia down to 13 men [in 2015] and we didn’t score.
“We have been much more clinical, and in the Six Nations this year, it was very much a target for us and converting in opposition 22s. That statistic has gone up significantly.
“I think this is the most open World Cup we’ve had for a long time. There are six or seven teams capable of winning it. You always need a little bit of luck. You get to the quarter-finals, and then take it one game at a time.
“I think the northern hemisphere sides have got a great chance of doing well in this World Cup.”
Alun Wyn Jones: The 33-year-old lock has won more caps for Wales and the Lions than any other player, and it is impossible to put a value on his worth. The Wales captain led his country to the Six Nations title and Grand Slam success last season – he was also named player of the tournament – and was a driving force behind a record unbeaten 14-Test run from November 2018 to August this year. He offers an inspired presence, and will be at the forefront of Wales’ World Cup ambitions.