Sam Warburton says the depth Wales coach Warren Gatland has created puts the Six Nations champions among the leading contenders heading to this year’s World Cup in Japan.
The former captain believes only New Zealand hold anxieties for him as opponents at the tournament that starts in six months.
Wales convincingly beat defending champions Ireland 25-7 in Cardiff on Saturday to claim the Grand Slam and a first Six Nations triumph since 2013, and Warburton says the now No.2-ranked team in the world have no peer, bar, perhaps, the All Blacks.
“Wales deserved to win this and it sets them up so nicely. I don’t want to get too excited but, because South Africa and Australia are not the sides they once were, Wales have a real chance in the World Cup,” Warburton wrote in his column for The Sunday Times.
“If somebody else beat New Zealand and knocked them out of the tournament, as a Welsh fan you would be thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is on.’. Basically, New Zealand are the only team I would really worry about Wales playing.”
Gatland will be leaving his post with Wales after the World Cup, where his side have been pooled with Australia, Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay.
If they were to repeat their November victory over the Wallabies, then a likely quarter-final clash with France awaits.
Come through that and if other games got to form, Wales would have a likely semi-final against either Ireland or South Africa.
If the draw panned out in that way, then Wales would not meet the All Blacks until the final – or perhaps not at all if the holders were to slip up against England in a possible semi-final.
But Warburton also stressed that international rugby is a tough environment and fortunes can swing quickly, though Gatland will be well aware of the pitfalls.
“When we last won the Grand Slam in 2012 we then went to Australia and lost all three Tests, even if they were all desperately close. Suddenly we went on an eight-game losing streak. Things can change quickly. Gats will know that.”
Warburton, who retired last year at the age of 29 due to injury, but with the most number of caps as Wales captain, says Gatland has been building his team on and off the pitch for a number of years.
“He now has more resources in Wales and the depth he has created is no accident. He puts more faith in youngsters and untried players than other coaches. He has tried some who have not quite made it but his success rate is high.
“Take even Liam Williams. People forget that 18 months before Gats picked him he was a scaffolder. Now look at him.
“Gats converted Jamie Roberts from a full-back/wing to a centre. He gave George North his chance at 18, Leigh Halfpenny his chance at 19. He took a punt on me as a young captain at 22.
“It is hard to do all that when you are under the pressure of the Six Nations and the autumn series when you have got to deliver.”
Warburton believes Gatland’s best work off the pitch has been to raise expectations and those will be at fever-pitch come the World Cup.
“He has simply changed the psychology of the nation. He took over a nation of underachievers and now we expect to win the Six Nations every year. His first impact was on the players, obviously, but that has found its way all the way down to the fans.
“Wales are now a team of achievers and the nation wants and believes that the team can achieve.”
Gatland masterminded Six Nations wins over England and Ireland, albeit at home, as well as an opening away victory over France that in hindsight could be their most significant result in years.
Trailing 16-0 at halftime in Paris, Wales stormed back to win the game 24-19, providing a surge in confidence they have carried through the competition and will take to Japan.
“I don’t want to be too romantic about it with him sitting here but he (Gatland) alluded to the fact that when you’ve got someone so confident at the top of the tree, that filters down and it’s hard to ignore,” says Wales’ current captain Alun Wyn Jones
“It’s easy to say off the back of a win but we’ve come under some pressure over the years, when it has been backs against the wall and it takes a certain type of character to come through the mire. He’s pretty much the guy who has done that.”
What Gatland has built in the last 12 months, on his way to 14 test wins in a row, is a squad of with new depth, weaving in younger players full of enthusiasm for the challenge along with the older, more experienced guard.
“I don’t know if I’m getting soft in my old age or if it’s because I’ve got kids now but when you see young men come into the side and grow over an eight-week period, you feel proud,” Jones says.
“I’m really proud for such a small nation to be able to do that. Proud is the word – for everything we represent, from our country to our families, we just try to show that.
“The message before the game was very simple – be proud of what you represent, who you are and where you’re from. If you work hard enough, you get your rewards,” Jones said, a mantra they will carry to Japan.