Wales finished their month of shadow-boxing the Northern Hemisphere’s finest with their most insipid 40 minutes of the summer. Double-headers against England and Ireland were never going to be the crowd-pleasing, try-laden mismatches that would have allowed Wales to swagger into the World Cup, yet that rigour and scrutiny will surely benefit Warren Gatland’s men for the arm-wrestles ahead in Japan.
However with Taulupe Faletau and Gareth Anscombe lost to injury, planning for perfection has come at a cost, so what sort of shape will they be in when Mamuka Gorgodze and his Georgian brethren bare their teeth on September 23?
Playtime is over
You know those Rocky films, where training sequences, backed by uplifting rock anthems have Stallone and Carl Weathers running themselves into the ground before the action cuts to the Madison Square Garden changing-rooms, and the protagonists are being strapped up, ready to go hell for leather, well that’s Wales, metaphorically, right now. In the sheds, looking for inner-strength and redemption. They fly out to Japan on Wednesday, to see if all the grunts and grimaces of the summer training camps and 320 minutes of game-time was worth it. Mike Tyson used to rasp, ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’, and it’s likely that September 29, when Wales play Australia, is set to be a defining round with Michael Hooper, David Pocock and Samu Kerevi waiting to unleash quickfire combinations. Whether Wales are still bobbing and weaving or flat on the canvas, could go down to a points decision.
Expectations are checked
When Wales were anointed the World’s No 1 team a fortnight ago, Warren Gatland was almost embarrassed. He stressed that only the side lifting the William Webb Ellis Cup could be viewed as peerless and a fortnight later, they find themselves in a more familiar fifth spot. He may not admit to it publicly but I have a suspicion Gatland is at ease being in the chasing pack. As a guide to how quickly fortunes can change, only 16 days ago, after being annihilated 57-15 by England, Ireland were ‘in crisis’, but they now go to Japan with confidence largely restored and the World No 1 status after a brace of wins over Wales. Indeed, while the England game wasn’t really a true representation of Joe Schmidt’s team, nor is three losses out of four time to hit the panic button in Wales. It’s a reset, a calibration. A case of both sides finding their level. If you look at the bookies, that’s nestled behind New Zealand, South Africa and England. A semi-final for both sides would represent marked progress, especially for Ireland who have never made it past the quarters.
'I like Gatty, but that stuff irritated me after the game. It was condescending and insulting'https://t.co/eTnz4lVNab
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 9, 2019
Wales’ cutting edge needs sharpening
There’s no wilier fox than Warren Gatland, who could easily hold an honorary doctorate in cunning from Cardiff University, and you’d be a fool to think he’s showcased his attacking hand. I have no doubt Wales will show more derring-do when facing the likes of Georgia and Uruguay but there’s no getting away from the feeling that Wales currently lack the wherewithal to carve open the top-tier sides at will. The facts are stark. They’ve scored 17 tries in 10 Tests in 2019. Compare that to England’s 38 in 10, and New Zealand’s 27 in five – that’s a marked difference. Making tight carries over the gainline was as rare as hen’s teeth in Dublin, with Jake Ball one of the few not clattered back into the Dublin turf. It would be reassuring to see Justin Tipuric being given more of a carte blanche to utilise his attacking instincts as a link-man. He is wasted purely as a target at the tail of a lineout, or an organisational lynchpin who holds up ball-carriers and looks for penalties. Out wide, Leigh Halfpenny for all his defensive dexterity doesn’t unsettle defenders and Josh Adams has been starved of ball for so long line-breaks have been consigned to the memory banks. Playing with more élan, flair, brio; call it what you want, is very much in order.
Time for new heroes
It’s nigh on impossible to know whether some of Wales’ superstars have played within themselves in the last month. The likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies have all ticked over without pulling up trees, but their experience will, of course, be integral to Wales’ progress into the latter stages. Wales need new stars, and in Aaron Wainwright, they have unearthed a gem who looks to have played himself into the starting line-up. Still just 21, Wainwright is in perpetual motion and the fearlessness of youth means he’s the type of athlete who will make grizzled Test veterans consider whether to step aside. He’s been revelation around the fringes, where he’s tackled with zeal, covered every blade of grass and steadily improved as a ball-carrier. Another young Dragon, Elliot Dee has been a decent support act, always rumbling into contact in Ken Owens’ absence, and that effervescence will be need to be continued by Rhys Carre, Owen Watkin and Watkin, who can unleash blitzkrieg from the bench.
Wales have never been in better shape going into a World Cup
I don’t think anyone but the most fervent Wales fan can say, hand on heart, that Wales were a dead-certs to lift the William Webb Ellis Cup and after a month of tinkering, where Wales have lost three out of four games, context, however, is given by Ireland occupying top-dog status and England in third. Wales were caught cold by England in their opening 20 minutes and shut out by Ireland in their final half but they were more than competitive in between. The nucleus of this side has not been torn apart since facing New Zealand in the summer of 2016. In 33 Tests since, their biggest losing margins has been 16 points (29-13 to Scotland in 2017) and 15 points (New Zealand 33-18) in November 2017. At full-strength, they are formidable and garner respect throughout the game. They are arguably the strongest Welsh side to enter the tournament since 1999 when Wales went into a home World Cup on the back of nine consecutive wins, but even then, there was a suspicion Wales had peaked in Argentina that summer. This time round Wales have an inner resolve, a confidence borne out of winning tight, meaningful games under pressure. That should make them a side to underestimate at your peril.
Starting XV for Georgia
15. Liam Williams
14. George North
13. Jonathan Davies
12. Hadleigh Parkes
11. Josh Adams
10. Dan Biggar
9. Gareth Davies
8. Ross Moriarty
7. Justin Tipuric
6. Aaron Wainwright
5. Alun Wyn Jones
4. Jake Ball
3. Tomas Francis
2. Ken Owens
1. Wyn Jones
Alun Wyn Jones on the World Cup
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