It was left to South Africa’s erudite coach Rassie Erasmus to best sum up Wales’ progress over the past 18 months and identify how Warren Gatland has shaped a squad now firmly established as World Cup contenders.
“The Welsh are just totally in sync and aligned with what they want to do tactically and technically,” Erasmus said after his side slipped to their fourth loss in succession to Wales on Saturday night.
“The planning of their cycle to peak at the World Cup has been excellent. They obviously think more long term than maybe other countries who are in crisis management trying to get back onto the boat trying to get good performances and put good squads together.
“If you look at Warren’s squad you can see he’s building lots of fly halves, lots of nines, lots of twos, lots of 15s. He’s got a proper squad to pick a World Cup squad out of.”
There was a thinly veiled dig in there at England, for sure, but Erasmus’s broader point about long-term planning and the resultant squad depth was spot on.
Proper squad, proper coach, proper prospects. Wales are in the shape of their collective lives going into next year’s World Cup cycle following a near perfect autumn which saw them win four Tests from four for the first time and extend their winning run to nine in succession.
It seems extraordinary now that some scoffed at Gatland’s insistence on chopping and changing his team to add depth and experience when clearly the New Zealander knew what he was doing all along.
Remember the outcry when Gatland picked a second-string side to face Italy in the Six Nations? Or when he opted to rest his key stars over the summer and take a young, thrusting squad to Argentina, where they proceeded to win the series 2-0 and blood a whole raft of youngsters who otherwise would still be craving international exposure.
Among those young(ish) bloods were Ellis Jenkins and Gareth Anscombe, who have both emerged as impressive leaders and players in the current Welsh squad.
Jenkins, who is set to be side-lined for an extended period after a questionable South African clear out at the end of the match left him with a potentially serious ACL injury, was absolutely magnificent on Saturday.
Only 12 months ago the Cardiff Blues flanker sat behind a long list of high-class back row performers including Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Aaron Shingler, Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric – all of whom either have or could grace a British and Irish Lions shirt in the future – as his prospects of playing in next year’s World Cup seemed remote at best.
Warburton’s retirement through injury has opened the door for club and to a lesser extent country and Jenkins.
On the evidence of Saturday night in Cardiff, when he was the best player on the field by some distance after receiving a late call off the bench to replace the injured Lydiate, the 25-year-old Cardiff Blues captain will be among the first names pencilled into Gatland’s squad for Japan next year.
Jenkins can console himself with that probability as he begins what looks likely to be a lengthy recovery process over the coming months. As carrots dangling at the end of a tunnel go, they don’t get much juicier than a World Cup squad place. We wish him well on his recovery.
With No8s Ross Moriarty and Taulupe Faletau also likely to fully fit and firing come the World Cup, Wales can now rightfully claim to have more back-row depth than any other country in the world. It is a healthy place to be.
Like Jenkins, Anscombe grew in status over the summer and was deservedly given a starting berth on Saturday. It didn’t go perfectly for the New Zealand born playmaker, with a couple of missed touch finds blotting his copybook, but he showed enough quality going forward to reaffirm the belief Gatland has options at No10 aside from Dan Biggar, Rhys Patchell and Blues young tyro Jarrod Evans.
Elsewhere, Liam Williams was tin-tack sharp at full back while George North has enjoyed a fine autumn and looks reborn on a National Dual Contract at Ospreys while Hadleigh Parkes had his best game of the Under Armour series and Jon Davies is fit, firing and fresh again.
Scarlets and Lions prop Rob Evans has also been hugely impressive off the bench after returning from injury to give Gatland the sort of depth other nations crave. “A proper squad to pick a World Cup squad from.”
Erasmus said it, the rest of the world now knows it. The only negative for Gatland is that he no longer has a hope of keeping his squad “under the radar” where he wants them.
He attempted to push the focus back onto Ireland and England after the game but Wales’ secret is out.
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