From Hamish Stuart in Nice
Wales’ starting line-up against Portugal on Saturday is littered with players who could provide foundation stones for teams way beyond the current World Cup.
Exeter locks Dafydd Jenkins and Christ Tshiunza are just 20 and 21, centre Mason Grady is 21, wing Louis Rees-Zammit 22 and captain Dewi Lake only 24, highlighting a rich seam of young talent available to head coach Warren Gatland.
Tshiunza’s journey has taken him from his birthplace – Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – to Exeter Chiefs, via Whitchurch High School in Cardiff after he and his family left a country rife with civil war 13 years ago.
🧬 Not only is tomorrow World Marrow Donor Day..Wales take on Portugal in the #rugbyworldcup!
— Welsh Blood 🏴 (@WelshBlood) September 15, 2023
To have now arrived at a World Cup just eight months after his 21st birthday underlines a searing rate of progress on the rugby pitch.
“It is very surreal, considering in 2010 I didn’t even know what rugby was,” said Tshiunza..
“I was with Mason (Wales centre Mason Grady) four years ago, we were going to a Wales Under-18s tournament in South Africa and we were just saying it would be class to be at the next World Cup, and now we are here.
“I feel like I am living a dream at the moment, so after all of this we will look back and think ‘wow, that was really good’. I am just happy to be here and I am trying to enjoy every moment so far.”
Tshiunza will make his first appearance in the tournament on Saturday, when he will be partnered in the second-row by his Exeter colleague Jenkins.
But there are some old heads, too, and maybe to most significant is Gareth Anscombe.
The Wales No.10 missed the 2019 tournament in Japan when he wrecked his knee in a tournament warm-up match against England at Twickenham.
Introducing Portugal's squad for their #RWC2023 opener against Wales 🇵🇹
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 14, 2023
Anscombe had not played much of a part in the 2015 tournament, either, after injury problems and for a time it looked as if he was in danger of missing this tournament as well.
But he recovered a from a fractured bone in his thumb to take his place in the squad and get his chance now in place of Dan Biggar.
Anscombe offers something different to Biggar, and to Sam Costelow, as well. If the former Ospreys playmaker – who is off to Japan after the World Cup – can get some more width and fluency into the back line, then Gatland may have some thinking to do.
When Wales won their last Six Nations title under Gatland in 2019, it was Anscombe who was the starting No.10, with Biggar playing the role of “finisher” and it’s possible that could provide the format if Anscombe goes well against the Portuguese.
Wales fly-half Gareth Anscombe admits he thought his World Cup injury curse had struck again as he prepares to face Portugal in Nice on Saturday.#BBCRugby
— BBC Sport Wales (@BBCSportWales) September 15, 2023
Anscombe has admitted he had some dark thoughts when he injured his thumb at the Wales training camp in Turkey and feared he may miss out on a second successive World Cup through injury.
His 2019 dream was wrecked when he badly damaged his knee at Twickenham in a warm-up game against England. He went into that game having led Wales to a Grand Slam.
It took him two years to work his way back to full fitness and he worked remarkably hard to force his way back into the international reckoning. He will get his first start at the World Cup since 2015 when he partners Tomas Williams at half-back in the round two game against Portugal in Nice.
“I just went to chop George North and just got his knee flush on the thumb. It didn’t look great at the start and the initial prognosis was it was probably going to need surgery,” said Anscombe.
“Frustratingly, it happened right at the end of the last scrum during a love session in Turkey. It didn’t look great and I had to go and have a scan.
“Thankfully, the scans came back better than first thought and it looked like there would be a chance of coming back right.
“I was in a cast for a month, which was difficult, but at least I could still run. I missed the warm-up games but to have the backing of the coaching staff was great.
“They spoke to me and said I was still in their plans, which was nice to hear. It’s been about getting myself right and ready for when an opportunity presented itself, and here we are this weekend.”
Portugal have an impressive record over recent years in Sevens rugby but have yet to transfer that progress fully to the 15-a-side game.
— Chris Jones BBC (@chjones9) September 15, 2023
If they do manage to cause Wales problems, one player likely to be at the centre of things is 22-year-old wing Raffaele Storti.
With 17 international tries, Stortie is his side’s most potent attacking threat.
He crossed the whitewash three times in as many games during the decisive final qualification tournament, including Portugal’s only try in the draw against the USA which secured World Cup qualification.
That spot was sealed with the final kick of the game from nerveless fly-half Samuel Marques.