Pool D: Wales emerge as northern hemisphere’s main hope

Grand Slam winners can mount a serious challenge as Warren Gatland bids farewell

The Rugby World Cup will be Warren Gatland’s Wales swansong. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

The Rugby World Cup will be Warren Gatland’s Wales swansong. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Wales

Who are they?

A year out from the Rugby World Cup, Ireland looked the side best placed to mount a challenge to the All Blacks in Japan - the northern hemisphere’s shining light. Yet while Joe Schmidt’s side were earning global acclaim following a record breaking 2018, Wales were hard at work in the shadows, the final pieces of another great team being moved into place. Success at the World Cup often comes down to peaking at the right time, and Warren Gatland’s side seem to be doing just that - briefly enjoying a spell at world number one after beating England in Cardiff in August.

Wales celebrate after securing the 2019 Grand Slam with victory over Ireland. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Wales celebrate after securing the 2019 Grand Slam with victory over Ireland. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Wales are a very well-balanced side. In the pack they are formidable in the tight with athletic, physical loose forwards. In behind, Gatland has moved away from ‘Warrenball’ towards a more fluent, attacking style - without sacrificing the uncompromising defence which has become the Welsh calling card. Admittedly, their pool in Japan is fraught with danger, however beating the Wallabies in Cardiff last autumn - after a run of 13-consecutive defeats - will have lifted a huge mental block. There are also a couple of big absentees through injury - particularly Gareth Anscombe and Taulupe Faletau. But this is Gatland’s last hurrah before his departure in the wake of the tournament - both he and his players will be determined to go out on a high.

The coach

And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain. . . 12 years is a huge amount of time to spend in any job - never mind the pressure-cooker of international sports management. Warren Gatland’s Wales tenure has been epic, with the Kiwi masterminding four Six Nations Championship victories - three of them Grand Slams - since taking the role in 2007. 55-year-old Gatland will finally move onto pastures new after the Rubgy World Cup - he has signed a four-year contract with Super Rugby franchise the Chiefs, which includes a sabbatical to lead the Lions in South Africa in 2021. Gatland and his teams have left an indelible mark on Welsh and northern hemisphere rugby - a glorious farewell could be on the cards.

The captain

What is left to say about Alun Wyn Jones? The veteran secondrow will turn 34-years-old two days before the Rugby World Cup gets underway in Japan, yet he remains as integral to Wales as ever. Jones was a cornerstone of this year’s Grand Slam victory, with the Welsh skipper being named the Six Nations player of the tournament after leading his side to a first championship since 2012. An inspirational presence on both sides of the ball and the anchor of the Welsh pack, this will surely be Jones’ last chance to get his hands on the Webb Ellis Cup. It’s a chance he won’t pass up lightly.

The one to watch

For most teams, losing a player of the calibre of Taulupe Faletau would be a terminal blow. Yet Wales are more used to dealing with injuries than most, and in Ross Moriarty they have a direct, world class replacement at number eight. 25-year-old Moriarty is a physical specimen with an almost masochistic thirst for contact, actively seeking confrontation every time he gets his hands on the ball. Moriarty’s form during the Six Nations has made him undroppable, and with Faletau ruled out the number eight jersey will be his in Japan.

Ross Moriarty will have the number eight jersey in Japan. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Ross Moriarty will have the number eight jersey in Japan. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Their RWC moment

When you think of Wales at the Rugby World Cup there is one heart-breaking moment which stands out above the rest - captain Sam Warburton’s highly controversial red card in the opening stages of the 2011 semi-final against France. Wales lost 9-8 to Les Bleus after their talisman’s dismissal - they would have made the final with him.

Best RWC finish

4th place: 2011

You bet

8-1 (Oddschecker)

The verdict

Victory over Australia, and avoiding an upset against a strong Fiji side, will be key - top the pool and Wales can go all the way, with France or Argantina their likely quarter-final opponents.

The squad

Backs: Josh Adams, Hallam Amos, Dan Biggar, Aled Davies, Gareth Davies, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Hadleigh Parkes, Rhys Patchell, Owen Watkin, Tomos Williams, Liam Williams

Forwards: Jake Ball, Adam Beard, Rhys Carre, James Davies, Elliot Dee, Ryan Elias, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Wyn Jones, Dillon Lewis, Ross Moriarty, Josh Navidi, Ken Owens, Aaron Shingler, Nicky Smith, Justin Tipuric, Aaron Wainwright