Let’s get the platitudes out of the way from the off. Warren Gatland, to the surprise of no one, is Wales’ greatest coach, not just in the professional era, but any era. His achievements stand up to the closest of scrutiny. Three Grand Slams, a further Six Nations Championship, two Lions tours as head coach, where a Wales-heavy touring side earned a first Series win since 1997 over Australia, and a drawn Series in New Zealand point to a coaching tour de force.
While Gatland’s squad are not loved worldwide for playing aesthetically-pleasing rugby, they are widely respected. Handre Pollard, the Springboks lynchpin summed up the uncomfortable nature of playing Wales when this writer spoke to him in the wake of South Africa’s 20-11 loss last November. “They are a tough bunch of men. They hold you up in contact if you go too high, or if you drive too low, they push you down and steal the ball. They are clever. They don’t play much rugby and kick a lot, but they get the points they need. If you want to beat Wales, you have to keep your discipline.” Succinct and to the point, read between the lines and Wales are a nightmare to play against.
To the bemusement of some, including Steve Hansen, Wales are currently the world’s No 1 side. Whether that matters or not is a moot point, but the fact remains, you simply can’t fluke 15 wins in 16 games. It tells you what an obdurate, stubborn, gutsy body of men Gatland has at his disposal.
When it comes to superlatives, short of renaming him Dai and tattooing Cymru Am Byth on his meaty forearms, Gatland is as close to an honorary Welshman as it’s possible to get, however, now Wales have their finest chance of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup since its inception in 1987, it is time to scrutinise areas of weakness, and reasons they may come up short.
Wales Rugby World Cup Kit – Continue reading below
There are some factors already outside Wales’ control. Despite deepening Wales’ playing resources, the squad are now one-injury away from a crisis in certain positions. The long-term injury absence of Ellis Jenkins, the continuing hex afflicting Taulupe Faletau, right down to the innocuous, yet crushing ACL blow to Gareth Anscombe and nonsensical non-selection of Rhys Webb have all contrived to deprive Wales of some game-breaking talent at 7, 8, 9 and 10.
This could prove terminal to their aspirations but it’s that long-debated conundrum over the ability to create, chase a scoreboard and rustle up five pointers when the pressure is on that continues to rattle round as a problem area. Those beads of sweat most Wales fans awake to in the middle of the night are all too real. A free-scoring Fiji in Oita on October 9th is being dangled by some agent provocateurs as Nantes 2007; the remake.
Wales, remember, were criticised for their inability to finish off the world’s elite in 2015. In both the Australia pool game, where the Wallabies were at one point down to 13-men and the South Africa quarter-final, where they had opportunities to cross the whitewash but spurned chances through imprecise passing, muddled thinking and, to their credit, brilliant defensive reads from the opposition.
Wales are a more refined and consistent squad than 2015. Their spine; Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar, Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams boasts 461 caps of hard-worn experience. Warren Gatland will be entrusting them with Wales’ fortunes, and through the clever Anscombe, they had slowly moved from the muscular style of play where big ball carriers powered the corner and battered the opposing side into submission until a defensive chink was found.
While Wales still play a possession and territory game, through Anscombe they were able to play flatter to the line and mix-up their game-plan, but with ‘Chicken’ injured, and the lionesque Biggar in situ there’s a suspicion Wales could struggle to unpick the most uncharitable defences, leaving them with 180 minutes to give Jarrod Evans, the barrelling, jinking Cardiff Blues 10 or the gifted Rhys Patchell some valuable game time. If Wales, notoriously slow starters, are down by 14 points to an England or New Zealand in the knockout stages, do they have the tools to respond?
Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies are a pair of human molluscs in midfield; Parkes is able to truck it up out of defence, take short-balls to carry over the gainline, while Davies is a Rolls Royce of a centre, with a left-boot like a traction engine, a hammer-fend and astute reader of defensive channels, but they are not prolific try scorers, with 19 tries in 92 Test appearances between them. Both 31, they are shorn of the gallop to run in tries like Brian O’Driscoll in his Gabba pomp, or a hot-stepping Jonathan Joseph. With Owen Watkin ranked more on potential than accomplishments and Scott Williams working his way back to fitness, midfield x-factor is limited.
Moving to the back three, strike-runners George North, Liam Williams and Josh Adams needn’t feel inferior to any unit in Northern Europe – but it’s worth noting the Grand Slam champions trailed England 24 tries to 10 in the Six Nations. You are left with the nagging feeling Wales are still to replace the once-in-a-generation inventiveness of Shane Williams in the Welsh backline.
Does such a player exist, you may ask? It’s hard to know. For a season, the footwork and trickery of Steff Evans shone brightly and drew comparisons with Amman Valley’s special one, but his confidence has been dented with his defensive game picked-apart. With Leigh Halfpenny assured a place on the plane for his experience, bravery, defensive positioning and 80 percent-plus goal kicking ratio, but not his attacking brilliance, it’s a straight shoot-out between Hallam Amos and Owen Lane for the fifth back-three spot.
Amos is perhaps favourite for his versatility. He can operate at 15, outside centre or wing. For many, he stagnated in a Dragons squad that struggled woefully for results and his move to the Cardiff Blues, at 24, has been translated as long-awaited chance to take a step to the next level. Amos’ problem has also been his horrible luck with injury, so the next 160 minutes against Ireland is pivotal to his aspirations.
Lane is the bolter. Developed as a 13 in his formative years, at 21, he still has the top-end speed of a Test wing, and with 11 tries in his last 13 games for the Cardiff Blues, his form has demanded inclusion in the Wales squad. With a Sevens background, he has an appreciation of space and is a superlative finisher with his arcing finish against Lyon, where he rounded French wing Alexis Palisson majestically. A few pounds shy of 16st, he also has the power to bounce tacklers in the tramlines. He is not the finished product, with his defensive maturity questioned, so whether Japan has come too early for the Whitchurch-schooled flyer will soon be clear if facing the likes of Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls.
Gatland is not averse to trusting in youth if it suits his modus operandi. He picked 19 year-old George North, 20-year-old Taulupe Faletau and 21-year-old Scott Williams in 2011, while in 2015, Tomas Francis and Gareth Anscombe had three-caps between them as 23 and 24-year-olds but time is running out for youngsters to impress their claims.
The next fortnight is an unfiltered audition for the few remaining squad members to gain the trust of Gatland and add the final piece of the jigsaw to Wales’ World Cup bid.
Wales may be back from Turkey, but the heat is on.
Rugby World Cup video – Fukuoka
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