Wales primed for tough World Cup campaign
August 28, 2011
Can Warren Gatland's Wales side come through a testing pool and book their place in the World Cup quarter-finals? © Getty Images
That strangely muted sound soon to be heard at Auckland airport is that of Wales arriving for a Rugby World Cup without any of the usual distractions.
They have so far avoided sacking the coach, getting humiliated by England in a warm-up match, finishing last in the Six Nations or, in the last few weeks at least, troubling the South Wales constabulary with drunken antics. The training camp in Poland appears to have been tough enough to make players both bond and think seriously without, as seems to have happened to the 2003 Springboks, leading them to conclude that their coach is a madman.
All well and good - and just as well, given that no Wales team has ever had to confront a tougher task at a World Cup. In every previous tournament, getting to the quarter-final was the bare minimum requirement - anything below represented failure and humiliation, getting there no more than should be expected. This isn't to say that a pre-playoff departure will not be greeted with the usual quota of wailing and teeth-grinding. But getting to the quarter-final would this time also represent authentic achievement.
To be drawn against either Samoa or Fiji would at any time cause a few reminiscent twitches. One ghost of World Cup humiliations past is bad enough, but both…
But the threat they offer is more than a simple matter of unhappy memories. Both will be better prepared than at any previous World Cup. This is the tournament where the IRB's Strategic Investment Programme, running since 2005, truly kicks in.
The islanders will have the benefit of top-class preparation in high-quality facilities and a well-planned run-up to the tournament rather than being flung together on a shoestring as they have been in the past. Samoa's defeat of Australia was no left-field fluke, but evidence of what they might achieve given the same infrastructure as established nations.
Wales will also for practical purposes be playing away. The stadium at Hamilton - venue for both matches - within comparatively easy reach of Auckland's southern suburbs, will be packed with Fijians and Samoans, and there can be little doubt who New Zealanders will be backing.
Against this the schedulers have done Wales one distinct, and rather unfair, favour. They will play Samoa seven days after their previous match against South Africa. The Samoans will have only four days to recover from their match against Namibia. Samoa, who will be similarly disadvantaged when they play the Boks, have every right to be as angry as Tonga were for the same reasons in 2003.
How tough is all of this likely to be? Put it this way - if Wales were to beat South Africa in their opening match, it would still be unwise to assume that they will progress. The scary flipside is the distinct possibility of being for practical purposes eliminated after the matches against the Boks and Samoa, dead men walking into the remaining clashes with Namibia and Fiji.
So can that desperate fate be avoided? A full-strength current Welsh pack would be a pretty formidable beast with an all-Lions front row, two bright and athletic locks and a decently evolving back row. But that group has never played together as an eight, and possibly never will. The front row in particular is cause for concern with chosen hooker Matthew Rees and alternate Richard Hibbard both gone, Gethin Jenkins uncertain and Adam Jones inevitably undercooked. Dominating the set pieces is no guarantee of success against islanders - as a Wales team who were so hypnotised by their control of the scrum that they failed to notice Samoans running amok in loose play in the 1999 World Cup could tell you - but it would be a pretty good start. But neither scrum nor an inconsistent line-out encourage complete confidence.
Where they have looked better is at back row where a new line-up of Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and Sam Warburton - who has already taken impressively to his unexpected extra role as captain - with Ryan Jones as a high-quality backup, has made an impact in the loose and defensively in the warm-up matches. The worry is what happens should Warburton be hurt, the danger that opting as backup for the blunderbuss qualities of Andy Powell over the specialist open side skills of Martyn Williams may come back to haunt Warren Gatland.
So too perhaps may the very sensible aspiration he voiced on first becoming coach nearly four years ago - of going to New Zealand with a core of players hardened by Test experience. But the assumption was that those players would improve over time. Instead far too many have regressed. Mike Phillips, Stephen Jones, Jamie Roberts and Lee Byrne have been constant elements in Gatland backlines, but is any of them the player he was - or was at least thought to be - two years ago?
Too much, particularly if he is going to be moved around to plug gaps, continues to rest on the creative qualities of James Hook, prompting the thought that a role should probably be found - perhaps at outside-half - for the lively Rhys Priestland.
Shane Williams can still terrorise the best in broken play and we must hope that George North's knack of scoring in high-profile friendlies transfers to competitive fixtures, but how much decent ball will they see given the creative limitations inside them?
A preview of this sort should perhaps consider the likely options for the quarter-final and after - but that at the moment seems a very long way away. Australia and Ireland are the likeliest opponents, and either would start as favourites. But a Wales team that has somehow extracted itself from a nightmarish pool stage - therefore presumably stilling a few of the doubts and repairing some of the deficiencies noted above - would have grown over a demanding month and become a rather more formidable proposition than the group about to set off for New Zealand.
The pessimist in this writer, usually uppermost when contemplating Wales' prospects, anticipates an early return. The optimist, who can point out that his alter ego saw neither the 2005 nor the 2008 Grand Slams coming, reckons that a repetition of 1987's run to the semi-final is far from impossible.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.