By Robin Davey
Mission number one accomplished – Wales are in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, and with a game to spare into the bargain, after hard fought victories over Australia and Fiji following an easier one against Georgia.
It remains to be seen who their opponents are, but it will be regular Six Nations opponents – either England or France depending on the outcome of their clash on Saturday.
France are the most likely unless they can beat England this weekend – something they have not managed to do outside of Paris for eight years.
Since losing to France in Auckland in the 2011 World Cup semi-final, Wales have played France eight times and lost just once, a controversial two-point defeat in 2017.
Wales’ outstanding pool match is on Sunday against minnows Uruguay, and injuries plus the need to rest a number of leading players with just a four-day turnaround after the bruising Fiji encounter, should mean a much changed Wales team taking the field.
It helps that Wales need just two points to ensure they will finish top of their pool from a draw, losing bonus points or even a weather-forced cancellation which would mean a 0-0 draw and those two points as a result.
But it shouldn’t come to that as Wales will surely vanquish a Uruguayan team full of amateurs. Quite how they managed to dispose of Fiji in their opening match is now a complete mystery.
Since then they have been well beaten by Georgia and Australia and surely even a much changed Wales team will get the better of them with something to spare.
Head coach Warren Gatland, aiming to go out on a high at the end of his 12 years in charge, will almost certainly give a chance to the few players who haven’t featured in the match-day 23 on duty for their previous group games.
Wing/full back Hallam Amos, scrum half Aled Davies and hooker Ryan Elias have yet to appear at all while others like Owen Watkin, Rhys Patchell, Tomos Williams, Rhys Carre, Elliot Dee and Aaron Shingler have only appeared off the bench.
Locks Adam Beard and Bradley Davies have also been confined to barracks, so to speak, though their cases are different – Beard needing an appendix operation which delayed his departure for Japan and he is only just fully recovered, while Davies flew out as a replacement for the unfortunate Cory Hill who failed to recover from a slight leg fracture and had to return home.
Clearly, they won’t all start against Uruguay but some certainly will while others will go on off the bench to at least taste some World Cup experience.
Amos could well deputise for Liam Williams, one of many bloodied and bruised players emerging from the Fiji clash, while Watkin will surely replace Jonathan Davies, who suffered a knee injury.
Patchell is a certainty to make his first start of the World Cup after performing supremely well as a replacement for Dan Biggar against Australia and Fiji.
He has shown remarkable coolness, not to mention place-kicking accuracy, especially as he had been out for some time in the World Cup build-up because of concussion.
Biggar has also suffered successive blows to the head and is being stood down against Uruguay. But worries when Gareth Anscombe was ruled out of the tournament have been dissipated with the form of both Biggar and Patchell.
Beard will presumably make his World Cup bow with Davies probably on the bench, while inspirational captain Alun Wyn Jones richly deserves a rest after his herculean efforts in all three pool matches so far.
Fortunately, Wales have remained injury free in the front and back rows so there is every opportunity for Gatland to rotate against Uruguay with perhaps Dillon Lewis and/or Carre given a start while Shingler will surely make his first start in his specialist back row slot instead of filling in as a lock replacement.
Provided none of the injuries turns out to be serious, Wales are undeniably in a good place, the second team through to the quarter-finals and geared up for a Six Nations World Cup quarter-final a week on Sunday.