From Hamish Stuart in Bordeaux
There is plenty of doom and gloom in Welsh rugby ahead of the Rugby World Cup kicking off in France.
But why? This campaign could easily equal Wales’s best ever finish!
So, the Six Nations was disappointing, the summer series only slightly better once the home victory over England was put in perspective by other results.
So, Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric have retired, two great warriors without doubt.
So, there are injury concerns over some players.
2023 Voice of Wales, soprano Jessica Robinson
Arts Council of Wales announce the Artists performing in France for Rugby World Cup 2023
For more information 👉https://t.co/mGG1DIPqMz#WalesinFrance #RWC2023 pic.twitter.com/5rPNe5Wfli
— WAI Cymru Wales (@WAICymruWales) September 7, 2023
And yes, Fiji look good – very good, actually – Georgia also won in Cardiff last time out, and Wales can often find ways to mess it up against Australia.
While, we’re on the downside, this squad has a lot to live up to compared with the 2011 team who were within a few inches of a final – a Leigh Halfpenny penalty kick from halfway, or the exact angle of Sam Warburton’s tip tackle.
It’s also debatable whether this squad are as good as 2019, when Wales were within a couple of set piece penalties of setting up a winnable final against England by beating South Africa, or even 2015 when injuries left them struggling.
Go back further and this squad lack the number of big names of the 1987 side, who set the best ever finish of third. They had Jonathan Davies, Ieuan Evans, Mark Ring and Bob Norster.
All true, but maybe also missing the central point.
Quite simply, Wales have never had an easier route to the Rugby World Cup semi-final.
🏆 The Rugby World Cup 2023 starts tomorrow! We will be showing ALL MATCHES live at Longlevens Rugby. Including this weekend 👇
France v NZ, Fri 8pm KO / Ire v Rom, Sat 2:30pm KO / Eng v Arg, Sat 8pm KO / SA v Scot, Sun 4:45pm KO / Wales v Fiji, Sun 8pm KO pic.twitter.com/pnxnKah2u3
— Longlevens Rugby (@LonglevensRugby) September 7, 2023
If Wales get through the group stages, then their quarter final opponents will almost certainly be England, Argentina or Japan.
Not one of them is anywhere near the All Blacks of 1987, the Australians of 1999, England of 2003, France of 2011, or South Africa of either 2015 or 2019, to run through Wales’s various nemeses in the knockout stages.
There is a strong case for arguing the toughest game en route to a semi-final could be the first one against Fiji.
And there is another consideration, the Warren Gatland factor.
During the Six Nations he seemed a shadow of his previous self, openly admitting there were a lot of things about Welsh rugby he had not known before accepting the offer to return.
The players v WRU dispute, the regions v WRU – it all ran deeper than anyone outside the national and regional squads realised at the time. There is plenty still emerging drip by drip, and the player autobiographies should make interesting reading in a year or two.
But none of that is relevant to this campaign. Gatland has had them in camp for weeks.
— Graham Thomas (@Graham_Thomas) September 7, 2023
The old swagger is back. The punchy one-liner.
He has Wales where he wants them, supremely fit and ready to arm-wrestle deep into games.
Fiji first up will certainly be tough. Plenty of the Fijian team would get into a combined line-up, they have lots of stars of the European club game, and every four years they can be together like no other time in the rugby calendar.
But England were awful in their defeat against Fiji, almost as bad as Wales against South Africa – the difference being that it was pretty much a Wales second string.
The full strength line-up will show a lot more discipline, fewer mistakes. Bordeaux in 2023 will not be a repeat of the high-scoring, free-flowing World Cup defeat to Fiji of Nantes 2007.
If Wales get past that hurdle, they have the easiest schedule of any World Cup ever.
Six days to Portugal, another eight to Australia, 13 days before Georgia.
In other words, their big games are effectively all two weeks apart – preparation not afforded to any Wales team in history.
That’s a roll out of the red carpet, with snacks and comfy chairs along the way.
Who’s the value bet in the World Cup then?
— DragonBet (@DragonBetWales) September 7, 2023
And we know Gatland teams get better the longer they have together.
As long as Fiji are beaten, then first or second in the group is of little relevance. England, Argentina or Japan all beckon either way, all beatable.
It is only at the semi-final stage the big guns enter Wales’ World Cup orbit.
It could be South Africa, so impressive in Cardiff and Twickenham last month, or New Zealand, last beaten by Wales in 1953.
But it could be Ireland or France. Both would be confident against Wales given their recent records, but Gatland would have a twinkle in his eye and a plan up his sleeve against either.
Also, any of those teams will most likely feel battered and bruised, they will have injuries and HIA’s from pushing themselves to the limit just to reach the semi-finals.
If Ireland get to the semi-finals, they will have played Scotland, South Africa and either France or New Zealand, and stretched every sinew to win through.
So, a semi-final victory is possible, and an equal best ever finish still beckons if Wales do head into the third-place play-off.
That game could well be against England, Argentina or Australia.
Gatland is a details man. He is a planner. He knows all this, he’ll have told his players all this.
Let’s hope they believe it.
— WalesOnline 🏴 (@WalesOnline) September 6, 2023