Can Wales Find Form in Time to Rescue World Cup Chances?
Last time at the World Cup
At the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Wales’s pool was almost identical to the one they’ll face closer to home in a few weeks’ time. Australia, Fiji, and Georgia are all on the agenda again this time around. To say the Welsh won that group easily would be unfair, as there were no matches they won with landslide margins, but they won every match and topped the group 12 points clear of third place.
The knockout stages were tighter but threw up some classics – a single point victory over France, before a three-point defeat to eventual winners South Africa in the semi-final. The bronze final was more one sided with the All Blacks running away with the match.
And this time…
It’s more unpredictable – Georgia have come a long way in the last four years and could pose a real threat unless Wales’s form improves. Wales have already been defeated once at home to the Georgians in the past twelve months. Fiji have only lost one game in 2023, and then there’s Australia. A fixture between two heavyweights both struggling for form which could determine who makes it through to the knockouts and who’s on an early plane home.
There’s a lot of similarities between Wales and Australia. Both are in a transitional phase, with plenty of youngsters coming through. Both have coaches back in charge for their second spell, and both coaches led their countries to the latter stages of a World Cup previously and seem unlikely to repeat the feat this time round.
Wales had an awful Six Nations, winning just the one match against perennial table-props Italy, and their summer has been little better. A win against an England side in disarray under Steve Borthwick, followed by a narrow defeat to the same team a week later. Last week South Africa came to Cardiff and shot a warning as to just how dangerous the Southern Hemisphere nations can be.
Strengths and weaknesses
Wales’s main problem seems to be their form, or lack thereof. It’s widely acknowledged that they’re a team in transition, having lost Justin Tipuric and the talismanic Alun Wyn Jones to retirement early this year. But they were struggling before that too. There has been a long, steady decline in Welsh club rugby and this is having a knock-on effect on the national side. Last season, the best Welsh club finished 10th in the URC. In 2017/18 it was 3rd, however the four have collectively declined year-on-year since then.
There are positives too, if Gatland can get his team to gel. The squad on the plane is a good blend of experience and youth with depth in seemingly every position. There are four players with 100 or more caps – George North, Dan Biggar, Taulupe Faletau, and Leigh Halfpenny. There will be points to prove for that group as all of them are over 30 and this could well be their last opportunity at a World Cup.
Jac Morgan has been a revelation since he burst onto the scene. The 23-year old flanker has long been touted as the next Sam Warburton. In the URC around 12% of his tackles are dominant. Very few players are higher than 10%. Morgan was also in the top 20 for tackles made per game. His raw physicality was on show when he manhandled Tom Pearson during the warm up stages. Warren Gatland had rewarded Morgan with the co-captaincy going into the World Cuo.
Other youngsters bring hunger as well – Exeter forwards Christ Tshiunza and Dafydd Jenkins are just 21 and 20 respectively, while Ospreys hooker and fellow co-captain, Dewi Lake, is highly-rated and still only 24.
Who’s in the squad?
Wales are finally starting to look at their players abroad as viable options. For a long time players would be exiled if they so much as crossed the Severn Bridge. That being said, two thirds of the squad do play in Wales, with an almost exact four-way split between the four regions.
The others come mostly from the Premiership – the young pair from Exeter, electric wing Louis-Rees Zammit at Gloucester, new Harlequins prop Dillon Lewis, Leicester back rower Tommy Reffell, and Saracens’ Nick Tompkins (who once played for the red rose of England up to ‘A’ team status before opting for the birth country of his grandmother).
There’s a trio from France – Henry Thomas of Montpellier (who once went a step further than Tompkins and picked up seven caps in an England jersey around a decade ago), Tomas Francis from Provence in ProD2, and Toulon fly-half Dan Biggar.
Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe both now play their club rugby in Japan, a popular destination for players in the latter stages of their careers, while 34-year-old Leigh Halfpenny is currently without a club despite showing everyone he still has a metronomic boot from the kicking tee.
Props: Tomas Francis (Provence), Dillon Lewis (Harlequins), Nicky Smith (Ospreys), Gareth Thomas (Ospreys), Henry Thomas (Montpellier)
Hookers: Elliot Dee (Dragons), Ryan Elias (Scarlets), Dewi Lake (Ospreys)
Locks: Adam Beard (Ospreys), Dafydd Jenkins (Exeter Chiefs), Will Rowlands (Dragons), Christ Tshiunza (Exeter Chiefs)
Back rowers: Taine Basham (Dragons), Taulupe Faletau (Cardiff), Dan Lydiate (Dragons), Jac Morgan (Ospreys), Tommy Reffell (Leicester Tigers), Aaron Wainwright (Dragons)
Scrum-halves: Gareth Davies (Scarlets), Tomos Williams (Cardiff)
Fly-halves: Gareth Anscombe (Tokyo Sungoliath), Dan Biggar (Toulon), Sam Costelow (Scarlets)
Wings: Josh Adams (Cardiff), Rio Dyer (Dragons), Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester)
Centres: Mason Grady (Cardiff), George North (Ospreys), Nick Tompkins (Saracens), Johnny Williams (Scarlets)
Full-backs: Leigh Halfpenny (unattached), Liam Williams (Kubota Spears)
How far can these players go?
There’s a chance that the squad will click and get a few good results in the group stages, but based on how 2023 has gone so far, it’s going to be a struggle. Having two full-backs who don’t play in a top league (Premiership, URC, Top 14 or Super Rugby) could be their downfall, but they’ve got a strong pack who’ll give it everything.
George North seems to be finding some rhythm again, and Josh Adams is amongst the top five back three players for clean breaks, averaging 2.09 per game behind the Scottish pair of Darcy Graham and Sean Maitland.
Sadly, it looks like a potential last World Cup for some big names will end with a group stage exit.