Wales’ new-found strength in depth has made Six Nations rivals sit up and take notice, insists Sam Warburton

Exclusive interview: Wartburton talks his replacement Josh Navidi, the 2019 World Cup and why Wales can go to Dublin and beat Ireland

Sam Peters
Friday 23 February 2018 12:38
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Wales were unlucky not to win against England
Wales were unlucky not to win against England

For years the theory went that Wales’ first-choice starting line-up could match any team in the world but scratch beneath the surface and their lack of depth soon be exposed.

So, when Wales kicked off the Six Nations missing stellar names including Jonathan Davies, Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, Dan Biggar, Liam Williams and Rhys Webb through injury the assumption was made Warren Gatland’s men were on a hiding to nothing.

Two games in and the doomsday scenario has not yet played out.

With a crushing opening bonus-point win over Scotland followed by narrow defeat to England at Twickenham - where TMO Glenn Newman’s “terrible mistake” robbed the visitors of possible victory – Gatland’s men travel to Dublin to face Ireland in buoyant mood. They do so with a new cast blooded from recent exposure.

Previously unsung players including openside flanker Josh Navidi, blindside flanker Aaron Shingler, scrum half Gareth Davies and lock Cory Hill have proved the ticking heartbeat for Gatland’s team in the opening two fixtures. No longer can Wales be accused of being shallow.

“I’m glad the other nations have seen it now,” said injured former captain Warburton. “In Wales we’ve known for a long time we’ve got a big pool of back row boys but now it’s come to fore. I reckon we’ve probably got seven or eight back rowers who could start. Justin Tipuric has been on the bench but you can’t drop Navidi. He’s playing too well. Shingler is playing too well. Out of all the home nations now we’ve probably got the strongest group of back row boys.

“For the first time Wales could probably pick a squad of 30 players now and all 30 could start. With the World Cup 18 months away you can experiment for another six to nine months and then this time next year we’ll be wanting to pick a team with 90 per cent World Cup starters. Wales are in a great place.”

Navidi’s form has been especially encouraging with the Cardiff Blue’s contribution at openside flanker leaving no place for British & Irish Lions flanker Tipuric, who has had to settle for a place on Wales bench despite the raft of back-row injuries.

“About two years ago someone asked me who the best players I’ve played with at club level were,” said Navidi’s fellow Blue, Warburton. “There’ve been some great players at the Blues like Xavier Rush, Casey Laulala, Ben Blair, Gareth Thomas, Tom Shanklin and more. Some great Welsh and foreign players. But Josh Navidi would be one of them for me.

“Performance-wise some people have been a bit shocked by what he’s doing. But I can guarantee there’s not one Blues fan who is one bit surprised with the way Josh has been playing because he’s done that week in week out for the Blues. He’s won player of the year three times already and he’s only 27. It doesn’t surprise me at all how well he’s doing.”

Warburton's last international game came for the Lions in New Zealand (Getty)

With the likes of Williams, Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny – who missed the 12-6 defeat to England with a foot injury – all returning to face unbeaten Ireland at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, Wales’ starting line-up is at its strongest since last autumn’s opening Test against Australia.

Warburton, whose own comeback from neck and knee surgery is on track but will not see him return before next season, insists Wales are not out of the title running yet.

They travel to Dublin having won twice and drawn once on their previous four visits and with England facing a potentially tricky fixture against Scotland in Murrayfield later in the day, Saturday’s fixtures will go a long way towards determining the eventual tournament winners.

“I’d be really confident from a Welsh perspective,” Warburton said. “Scotland probably think they’ve got the best chance of beating England at Murrayfield for a long time and the way Wales have played against Scotland was brilliant. The game against England wasn’t a great game with the weather coming down. But Wales looked really good in the last 20 minutes. There’s a lot of good stuff going into that Ireland game.

Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones addresses the team after defeat at Twickenham

“You can afford to slip up in one game. It’s not ideal but you’re not down and out. There are still four teams who can win this Championship.

“Wales need to go over to Dublin thinking they need to score two or three tries. If it’s dry, we have to score tries. If I was jumping on the plane to go over there to play I’d be anticipating a win. They’ve done it before and can definitely do it again.”

Gatland’s pre-November claim that Wales’ potential to win next year’s World Cup in Japan was a greater motivating factor for him staying as head coach after last summer’s British & Irish Lions tour than the hefty loyalty bonus built into his contract was greeted with scepticism.

But victory on Saturday, in his 100th Test in charge, would add weight to the New Zealander’s bold prediction.

In 2015 Gatland took his side to Dublin ahead of the World Cup and won before they defeated England in the pool stages on one of the great nights in the history of Welsh rugby.

With his own eye very much on being fit and firing for next year’s global tournament, Warburton says Saturday’s Six Nations clash is perfect preparation for the biggest tournament of them all.

“In 2015 we played Ireland away before the World Cup because that would come closest to replicate playing England without playing England,” he said. “That’s why I’d love to see them go out and win in Ireland next week. You’ve got to beat good teams on the road and win to have a chance in a World Cup.”

Dove Men+Care are a proud supplier of the Welsh Rugby Union. #ScrumTogether @DoveMen

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