Warren Gatland has had plenty of time to get used to it, but the Wales coach is still a little exasperated at finding himself in the 2015 World Cup’s “pool of death” alongside England, the hosts, and Australia. “I think the draw was probably conducted too early,” he said at Twickenham today. “We should look at the way football does it.”
He may have a point. For reasons best known to themselves, the custodians of next year’s tournament decided to place the balls in the hat in December 2012, at which point Wales were ninth in the world rankings and floating dangerously in the third tier of nations. Had the draw been made now, still a year out from the opening match, they would have been in the second tier – still at risk of landing in a possible “pool of not feeling terribly well” but nowhere near as exposed as they are at present.
“When you look at our group, I’d say there are four sides who fancy themselves,” said Gatland, adding a resurgent Fiji to the trio of prime contenders. “What we’ve ended up with is two semi-finalists and a quarter-finalist from the last World Cup in the same pool and I guess it’s a shame that only two sides are going to find a way out of it.
“It will be tough, for sure. Most people will want England to get through to the last eight because that’s a way of maintaining maximum interest in the tournament, so we’ll be under plenty of pressure, as will the Wallabies.”
Gatland, resplendent in a bright pink marketing shirt that may not have done a huge amount for his macho front-rower’s image back home in All Black country, was at Twickenham for a “mass scrum” event involving more than 1,000 participants – an attempt at a world record, linked to the launching of the World Cup public ticket sale.
The next time he sets foot on the old cabbage patch in south-west London, he will be giving the Welsh players their final instructions before one of the most talked-about fixtures in the history of international union.
There is a good deal of rugby to played between then and now, however: a full round of autumn Tests, followed by the 2015 Six Nations, which will begin with an intriguing little floodlit tussle in Cardiff between… Wales and England. Not that Gatland, never one to be suckered into making himself a hostage to fortune, believes the outcome of the game in February will have a vast bearing on events next September.
“With the autumn Tests and the Six Nations, a lot depends on how people approach things,” he said. “Different teams will have different philosophies going into those matches and, at the moment, I can’t say we’ve decided between ourselves how Wales will go about it.
“I’m sure of this much, though: there’s no point winning all our games in November and again in the Six Nations, and then blowing out at the World Cup, which is the ultimate for us.”
Which is not to suggest that Gatland will be remotely satisfied with another run of close shaves against major southern hemisphere opposition in the coming weeks. New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Fiji are all heading for the Millennium Stadium during November and the minimum requirement will be two victories, if not three.
“We probably do need to take a southern hemisphere scalp to set ourselves up for the World Cup,” he acknowledged. “Not that we’re far away. When we played the Springboks in Nelspruit in June, we probably did enough to win the game twice over. Once we’ve jumped the hurdle, we’ll be in a good place.”
Wales will certainly be right in terms of fitness. Certainly the best conditioned European side at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand – their cutting-edge approach to physical preparation was the major factor in their advance to the semi-finals – they fully intend to maintain that advantage by booking themselves in to two training camps in contrasting parts of the world: the Swiss Alps and the Qatari desert. Gatland believes the mix of high altitude and even higher temperatures will add a few percentage points to his players’ performance levels.
“We always put huge emphasis on this,” he said. “We don’t have massive strength in depth in our squad, so we need to be in the best possible shape. Everyone is looking for an edge somewhere, but we’re excited by the potential of the programme we’ve put together.”