Rugby fans would be foolish to write off Warren Gatland’s Wales side, writes Simon Evans.
If one believes the bookies, or any rugby poll you care to read, Wales and Warren Gatland have little or no chance of getting out of the so-called ‘Group of Death’.
Conventional wisdom goes that England are at home, enjoyed a strong showing in the Six Nations and have a strength in depth that is the envy of nearly all the rugby playing nations save, for South Africa or New Zealand.
Conventional wisdom also dictates that Australia are certain to prosper given they have beaten Wales on the last ten occasions. Under the guidance of Michael Cheika, the former Leinster and Stade Francais coach, the men from down under have miraculously found a front a front row that is capable of scrummaging effectively against any team in the world, while they have a backline that is capable of ripping opponents to shreds.
Further fuel was added to the fire that the boys who operate in the land to the west of Offa’s Dyke have little chance of escaping from their pool, when a second string Irish side came to ‘fortress millennium’ and crushed Warren’s second string by two scores, though in truth it should have been five or six.
As Gatland takes his charges to North Wales this week, rugby greats including Barry John are already condemning Wales’ 2015 World Cup plans to the dustbin. Those buying a new Oxblood Rugby World Cup shirt, as first modelled by the players on Saturday during the bloodbath in Cardiff, might want to keep the receipt.
So that’s it. Warren, Shaun and Rob, thanks for the memories.
Oh if only it were that straightforward.
Amidst the gloom that descended on Cardiff of Saturday night, there are reasons for Gatland, his team and his supporters to remain cheerful.
Firstly, we’ve been here plenty of times before. Wales are notoriously slow starters – and Saturday was utterly pedestrian – and will undoubtedly get better. Gatland has got the players into the physical condition he deems worthy of his plan and approach, now he needs to remind the players that they also have a little of Phil Bennett in them and not just Lou Ferrigno.
Secondly, as diabolical as it was, Saturday’s game merely confirmed the fact that Wales has a dearth of talent beyond the matchday 22. There is strength, but little depth.
Thirdly, buried within a turgid Welsh performance there were a number of decent performances: two by those we always knew would be in the World Cup squad, and two from those on the fringes.
Justin Tupuric showed all the qualities that any Wales or Ospreys supporter will be well versed in. Sublime running lines, handling skills of a 70s centre and competitive around the rucks.
When he came on the pitch Taulupe Faletau showed the gulf between first and second string international rugby. Gatland should wrap the Newport Gwent Dragon up in a room of cotton wool and make sure he doesn’t leave until the morning of Saturday 26th of September to head to Twickenham.
Hallam Amos made mistakes but he also showed some great touches, great support lines and willingness to try. He will make Gatland’s final 31.
And finally Ross Moriarty showed enough dog, enough growl and enough endeavour to make his way into the final 31. His versatility in covering a number of positions means he will undoubtedly make the cut and follow in the footsteps of his father and uncle, hoping to end the hopes of the country he represented twice as a World Cup under-21 winner.
Back to our long list of reasons to be cheerful and we have Tomas Francis. The Exeter man, who wreaked havoc with his performances in the English Premiership, is the man to bolster the Welsh scrum and give the platform for the Gatland machine to spring into action. With a fit Samson Lee, Wales tight head problem would seem to disappear. A clear weakness on Saturday, Francis has the weight of a nation on his shoulders when he packs down to play the Irish at the Aviva Stadium in a couple of weeks’ time.
And finally, Gatland is a man with a plan. It’s a plan that’s very different to that employed by Joe Schmidt. Very different to that employed by Stuart Lancaster or any of the other leading coaches leading teams into the competition. But who said different is wrong?
Gatland has incredible conviction (remember the outcry over picking Jonathan Davies over an ageing Brian O’Driscoll in Australia with the Lions a few years back?) and a 22 that can make exiting the group of death a reality.
Saturday was rotten. But don’t fall into the trap that so many have fallen into the in the past. Trust in Warren and his cunning plan. For now.
Simon Evans, Pundit Arena.