Rugby World Cup
Wales must keep star players fit for World Cup glory, says Scott Quinnell
Rob Bartlett
September 19, 2015
Players To Watch: Sam Warburton

Scott Quinnell believes Wales' Rugby World Cup chances hinge on whether head coach Warren Gatland can keep his star players fit.

Wales suffered a major blow to their campaign after centre Jonathan Davies was ruled out of the entire tournament with a serious knee injury. Prop Rhodri Jones ruptured his pectoral muscle and could be sidelined until the latter stages, while Liam Williams faces a race to be fit for the Pool A opener against Uruguay.

"Keeping players fit is key," Quinnell told ESPN. "Keeping the likes of George North and Leigh Halfpenny fit to play will be absolutely key for Wales. Making sure you manage those players well is incredibly important. You can't do anything about the expectations of a nation, so it's down to keeping great players like Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton in prime condition.

"Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar have been two of the best half-backs in the northern hemisphere, both in terms of club and country, over the last year. It's about managing those types players and making sure you get through the pool, quarter-finals, semis and final while having your best players available and ready to play."

George North and Leigh Halfpenny in action for Wales against France in the 2015 Six Nations Championship
George North and Leigh Halfpenny in action for Wales against France in the 2015 Six Nations Championship© Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

It is a sentiment that holds most relevance to North; the Northampton wing suffered three concussions over a period of five months last season. He was knocked out during the Six Nations defeat to England last February and again during an Aviva Premiership clash against Wasps in March.

"It must play on your mind," added Quinnell, who won 52 caps for Wales until retiring from international rugby in 2002. "It's a situation where he was knocked out in the autumn and again against England and it was difficult to come back, so it must weigh on his mind. Particularly when you consider Ashley Smith from the Dragons retired from concussion.

"A lot of concussions are coming from players standing up in the tackle, so it's about technique. If that continues, it is going to have to be looked at. I just hope it doesn't play a huge part in the game. Scrums, lineouts and concussion seem to be all we talk about."

Perhaps the seriousness of North's situation was one of the reasons why head coach Gatland chose to include nine uncapped players in his initial 47-man training squad, before announcing his final squad on August 31.

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"It's vital that Wales don't have the types of injuries that other teams could cope with, but if we do then these players will know what it's like to train and hopefully play, given the opportunity," Quinnell said.

"Blooding these players early is vital. Warren Gatland said it was going to be one of the toughest summers these lads will ever have. They had some uncapped players there - it'll be a huge experience. What Warren has always said is building towards Japan in 2019. This is vital to the younger players, for their continued preparation and understanding of where they stand and where they are."

The Wales team walks off dejected after 2011 Rugby World Cup semifinal defeat to France
The Wales team walks off dejected after 2011 Rugby World Cup semifinal defeat to France© Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

However, injury isn't the only topic causing debate among the Welsh contingent. The strength of Pool A and which nations will advance from that group into the quarterfinals has been highly contested; after the opener with Uruguay, Wales face England and Australia at Twickenham either side of a home tie against Fiji in Cardiff.

"The expectation is England are very strong at home - I think that puts more pressure on them than us. It's such a big game," said Quinnell, who insisted England's Six Nations victory in Cardiff will play no part in determining the outcome at Twickenham on September 26.

"Wales against Australia is going to be huge, Wales against Fiji is going to be huge. Don't write Fiji off - they will play an integral part in Pool A. They're big, strong and get better the more they play over here. It's going to be a tough pool to get out off.

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"We might have to rest a few players against Uruguay in Cardiff - but you cannot write them off either. The World Cup is going to be a case of who can keep all of their best players fit. If England, Wales and Australia all keep their best players healthy, they're all capable of winning the pool, coming second in that group and, equally, coming third as well. That's just how close Pool A is - if Fiji do get a scalp, in which they are incredibly capable of, that could throw the cat amongst pigeons."

For Wales' senior players, though, it will be about righting the wrongs of four years ago. Gatland's side suffered a heartbreaking 9-8 World Cup semi-final defeat to France in Auckland, in which captain Warburton was controversially sent off.

"This group of players will look back at those 'what ifs' - there have been a lot of 'what ifs' in the past four years - and the frustration of that semi-final," Heineken ambassador Quinnell said. "Sam Warburton's sending off, how we should have won that game. They get to put that right four years later - and a four-year wait is a long time for it to stew."

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