World Cup 2019: On this form, Wales could take it as red
If the All Blacks’ hold is going to be broken, it’s a fair bet it will come from the rugby-mad team wearing scarlet
The Grand Slam triumph by Wales in the recently completed Six Nations tournament has added another serious contender to the “who will win Rugby World Cup 2019” debate.
Before the Six Nations, Ireland, the world’s No 2 team and conquerors of the mighty All Blacks in November 2019, were everyone’s favourite after New Zealand. But they stuttered and spluttered with losses to England and Wales and the dramatic loss in form by World Player of the Year Jonny Sexton over the past eight weeks.
Ireland are good enough to overcome the slump, but it couldn’t have come at a worse time for them, especially as they are on course to play either the Boks or All Blacks in the World Cup quarterfinals.
England were also rated in the top three but were erratic – a trait that doesn’t win World Cups.
Wales, although ranked in top four, were not serious contenders because they appear to be a team perhaps past its best. The Six Nations has proven that Wales deserve to be among the World Cup favourites. They are on a 14-match winning streak, while the supposed old heads such as Alun Wyn Jones and George North just keep on performing with incredible consistency.
Perhaps the biggest chip they removed from their shoulder was a 9-6 win over Australia last November. The Wallabies spent 10 years beating Wales, always seemingly with the last move the game. The two sides are grouped together at RWC 2019 so ending a 13-match losing streak against Australia was another example of Wales’s newfound inner strength.
But there is a more fundamental reason why Wales can go to Japan as legitimate contenders and second favourites to the perennial All Blacks. The style and tactics they used so successfully during the Six Nations is the prototypical way to play tournament rugby and to winning World Cups.
They were generally rock solid on defence and lethal on turnovers. It was difficult to score against them while they were ruthless at punishing opponents’ mistakes. Sounds simple but it’s been years in the making under defence guru Shaun Edwards.
Wales conceded just seven tries in five matches and in last weekend’s decider against Ireland, Wales led 25-0 late in the game despite two fewer visits to the opposition 22. They were comfortable without the ball much in the same way the All Blacks are. Both sides trust their defence to eventually force a turnover or win a penalty, and are unafraid to counterattack, or use their tactical kicking game to transfer the pressure.
Another reason that Wales are coming to the boil at the right time is that they have a spine of outstanding players backed by an experienced coaching staff that has spent more than a decade building and plotting.
In Alun Wyn Jones they have a talismanic skipper – the kind that generally drags a team to World Cup glory. His name would sit comfortably alongside those of McCaw, Smit, Johnson, Eales, and Pienaar.
Wales’s team is a balance of clinical experts such as flank Josh Navidi and centre Jonathan Davies, and genuine stardust such as fullback Liam Williams and No 8 Taulupe Faletau (who missed the Six Nations through injury, but who will be fit for RWC 2019).
It’s also no surprise that the two dominant sides in world rugby right now – the All Blacks and Wales – have had the same head coach for a combined 18 years. Steve Hansen has been in charge of the All Blacks since 2012 and Warren Gatland of Wales since 2008. This was Gatland’s third Six Nations Grand Slam while his side also made the 2011 World Cup semifinal and has beaten the Springboks four times in a row.
Georgia, Australia, Fiji and Uruguay will hold no fear for the Welsh at the World Cup. They have the players, the coaches and the mentality to stage a push for World Cup glory. If the All Blacks’ hold on the Webb Ellis Cup is going to be broken, it’s a fair bet it will come from another rugby mad nation, wearing red.