Rugby World Cup 2019: Wales may remain something of an enigma but hope continues to run high ahead of Japan

There were both positives and negatives to take from the 22-17 defeat in Cardiff in what was Wales’s first loss at home since November 2017

Samuel Lovett
Principality Stadium
Sunday 01 September 2019 08:27
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Warren Gatland tells Wales fans: we can win Rugby World Cup

For Wales, the allure of Rugby World Cup glory hangs heavy in the air. An expectant nation with a history of underachievement and disappointment on rugby’s grandest stage, this year’s tournament comes amid heightened hope of a first title.

But while Warren Gatland can justifiably point to Wales’s achievements over the past 12 months and argue that, yes, success in Japan is certainly obtainable, the home defeat by Ireland on Saturday leaves his side shrouded in a mist of curiosity and with a series of lingering questions to consider: are Wales genuine World cup contenders? Where do their weaknesses and strengths now lie? Will they be able to deliver when it matters most?

These are all questions that, in one capacity or another, fans will typically hope to answer in the immediate build-up to a World Cup. But as the summer campaign draws to a close – with the return fixture in Dublin next week their final warm-up match – Wales remain something of an enigma.

Gatland admitted the 22-17 defeat was a “disappointment” – particularly as his last home game in charge – but the New Zealander was nonetheless keen to highlight the positives. From his perspective at least, it brought into focus those players deserving of a place on the plane to Japan. “We had a few questions answered,” he said. “It was good from that point of view. We got what we wanted out of today apart from the victory.”

Notably, the debate surrounding Rhys Patchell and Jarrod Evans, as to who will provide back-up to Dan Bigger, has all but dissipated. There’s no doubt: Patchell is the man to bring. His introduction after half-time helped fuel the Welsh comeback, the fly-half scoring a try, making two conversions and effectively bringing his big runners into the game. Evans, in contrast, looked out of his depth, his distribution and kicking off the mark in periods of the first half.

Not wanting to dent his player’s confidence, Gatland was quick to admit afterwards that the Cardiff Blues No 10 had the harder task of the two – what with his team clearly out of sorts in the opening 40 minutes – but it was ultimately Patchell who seized the opportunities when they arose.

Meanwhile, the likes of Owen Lane (Wales’ first try-scorer), Scott Williams, Tomos Williams and Hallam Amos all seemingly did enough to earn their places in the squad, while prop Rhys Carre proved unable to deliver the sort of performance needed to turn heads.

But although Gatland’s selection headache may have been nullified as a result of Saturday’s clash, there’s still concern to be drawn from other aspects of the match. Wales were especially error-prone, with multiple handling mistakes and penalties at the breakdown only serving to hinder their cause. With so many players scrambling to prove their worth, it was perhaps to be expected – but Gatland knows that consistency is key from all his men when confronted with the pressure and grind of World Cup rugby.

The Welsh defence was found wanting, too. By the half-way stage, 20 tackles had been missed by those in red. Ireland had missed four. And with nine set-piece penalties to Wales’ name, it’s clear work is needed among the forwards – especially at the scrum, which was repeatedly called up by Romain Poite before eventually conceding a penalty try in the second half. Worryingly, it’s been the same story for much of the summer, something Robin McBryde must address come Monday 23 September.

Still, Gatland remained upbeat after the loss, pointing to the battling spirit his men showed in the final quarter of the match. This never-say-die attitude has come to define the Welsh in recent years, and of the many characteristics that Gatland has helped propagate during his 12 years in charge, it’s this which he’ll be notably remembered for once he steps away from the side after the World Cup.

“The pleasing thing about these guys is that they showed some great character,” Gatland said. “They showed what it means to play for Wales. They were disappointed with the first half. They can take a lot of pride out of the fact they didn’t give up, they kept on trying.” Five or so more minutes and the victory would have been Wales’ – but, come the final whistle, the Irish had done enough to bounce back from the humiliation of that Twickenham defeat.

With this philosophy to hand next month, there’s no doubt Wales will be a tough nut to crack. It’s the willingness to fight to the bitter end that often separates the heavyweights from the pretenders, so this latest display of resilience will certainly raise hopes of a strong Welsh showing in Japan.

Jarrod Evans failed to seize his chance (AFP/Getty)

Attention now turns to Dublin, where both Gatland and Joe Schmidt have agreed to field their strongest possible XV as they look to add the finishing touches to their preparations. That warm-up clash will be the true indicator of where this Welsh side stands – and you can’t help but feel the outcome of that showdown will either embolden spirits or cast a dark shadow heading into the World Cup.

Gatland, though, has already made up his mind. “We have overachieved in the last 12 years and we are not finished yet,” he declared deep within the heart of Principality Stadium, his home from home over the past decade and more. “When we are mentally and physically right, we can give any team in the world a run. I believe we will go a long way in the World Cup.”

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