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Are Wales the real deal in the Six Nations and the World Cup?

Ben Darvill 28 Jan 2019

Can the Welsh Dragon roar in 2019 with the Six Nations and World Cup crowns very much up for grabs this year?

READ MORE: 5 best outright bests for the 2019 Six Nations 

2019 is a massive year of rugby as the Six Nations gets underway in February, with the competition setting the scene for the World Cup in Japan in September. Every single one of the sides in the competition will look to use the Six Nations as a springboard to a strong showing at the World Cup, and one team that look to be peaking at the right time are Warren Gatland’s Wales.

The Welsh have been building for years, with coach Gatland able to slowly but surely create a side that have a lot of experience in high pressure situations, whilst not being in the twilight of their careers, with many teams often entering a World Cup year holding onto players that probably should have retired years before. Currently sitting in third in the world rankings, Wales seem like a decent proposition to star this year, and below you can find our three major reasons as to why we think Wales may be the real deal this year.

1) A settled and experienced squad 

The Welsh team celebrate. (Photo by GEOFF CADDICK/AFP/Getty Images)

Four years ago, Wales went into the World Cup with an injury crisis of epic proportions seeing the outfit limp into the competition with an almost unrecognisable squad. Rhys Webb, Leigh Halfpenny, Eli Walker, Cory Allen, Hallam Amos, Scott Williams and Liam Williams all picked up injuries in the build-up or during the tournament, with the nation’s options looking thin on the ground. However, the Welsh somehow managed to get through their group, with their fighting spirit emphasised by their 28-25 win over hosts and great rivals England, which effectively knocked the side out of the tournament. 

Wales then moved onto the quarter-finals as they took on South Africa in a mouth-watering fixture that did not disappoint. The Springboks won the match 23-19 courtesy of a late try from scrum-half Fourie du Preez, with the captain going over with five minutes to go to clinch the win for the southern-hemisphere side in a tense encounter. While elimination at the quarter-final stage was disappointing for the Welsh, it displayed the intelligent game management and the depth of the side that they could keep pace with a South African outfit that looked very strong at the time. 

Since then, Wales have been slowly but surely building their squad, adding experience to their previous green-eyed and bushy-tailed youngsters whilst keeping ahold of a number of their more-experienced and influential stars. While there are still question marks hanging over the inclusion of Leigh Halfpenny for the Six Nations, with the back currently injured and not anywhere near as cutting with ball in hand as many of his countrymen, Wales boast a very strong squad, and if they can avoid a similar injury crisis decimating their squad this year, then they will have serious aspirations of being the top side in both the upcoming Six Nations and the World Cup.

2) Warren Gatland and Alun Wyn Jones 

Wales' coach Warren Gatland (L) and captain Alun Wyn Jones (R). (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Warren Gatland may not be to the taste of every rugby fan, but it cannot be denied that he gets results. Gatland was brought in on November 9th 2007, and he immediately left his mark on the old enemy, with his first game as coach of the side seeing Wales beat England 26-19, with their win made all the more impressive by the fact that the Welsh had trailed 19-6 with around 60 minutes of the match gone. This was their first win at Twickenham since 1988, and this set them on their way to an exceptionally impressive Grand Slam triumph, as they achieved the feat for the first time in 100 years, and it was a mark of things to come. A bit of a rough-patch ensued with a number fo fourth-placed finishes seeing this Grand Slam success disappear in the rear-view mirror. 

They returned to form as a very strong performance at the 2011 World Cup saw Wales claim a number of impressive results, including a 66-0 win over Fiji and a 22-10 quarter-final triumph over Ireland helping the Welsh to finish in fourth-place at the tournament. This acted as a springboard for the side as they clinched a second Grand Slam in four years, with Gatland once again working his magic in the competition. Fast forward a few years and Wales were playing in the 2015 World Cup with a barebones squad due to injuries and, as previously mentioned, they were able to effectively knock England out of their own tournament before going down swinging against the Springboks. 

Particularly impressive has been Gatland’s tenure as head coach of the British and Irish Lions, with a 2-1 series win over Australia in 2013 followed by a 1-1 draw with New Zealand as the Lions proved that the southern-hemisphere sides are not that far ahead of their northern-cousins. Gatland’s success came due to his tactical ability, the strength of what was a world class squad, and the leadership of Alun Wyn Jones. Jones is a man Gatland clearly knows well as he utilised him in all three of the Lions’ Tests against New Zealand, while he was installed as the captain of the Welsh side following Sam Warburton’s retirement for rugby due to his injury problems, and while it was left to others to captain the Lions, Jones was clearly a man that lead from the front. 

Jones may be 33-years-old, but the veteran lock has become a mainstay of the side, securing 120 caps for his nation since his debut back in 2006 against Argentina. At 6 foot six inches, Jones is an imposing player and a nuisance at the line-out, while he is constantly seen bustling around the pitch, getting through the work you would expect of a second row. While he is one of the finest forwards in the game today, where he really excels is in his leadership qualities and work rate, and he is the man Gatland has entrusted to lead the side on the pitch.

The experience of the two is vital for Wales as they look toward a successful year, and if Wales are to lift at least one of the major trophies available this year, then the dynamic between Jones and Gatland will be vital, with the former doing the unenviable job of replacing Sam Warburton in incredibly impressive style.     

3) A mix of determination and skill 

Wales celebrate scoring against Scotland. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

No side in the world is perfect, not even New Zealand. The All Blacks may play scintillating rugby 99 times out of 100, but even they can have an off day, and when this happens, they have to be able to show the gritty side to their game. Against Scotland back in November 2017, the All Blacks were pushed all the way by their hosts in a 22-17 win, with the reigning-world champions not at their vintage best. The Scottish made it an incredibly tight affair as they came within a whisker of a famous win, which would have been their first over New Zealand. In that game, New Zealand did display moments of magic, but it was ultimately a late-cover tackle from Beauden Barrett on Stuart Hogg that won the game for the visitors. Clearly, even the best can have off-days.

Wales then, in their search of world dominance, must replicate this, and they will come out a stronger team for it. Questions have been raised over Wales’ propensity to defend in recent years, with their defence line, coached by Shaun Edwards, one of the best in the world, with the Welsh defence a fearsome one, proving incredibly tough to break down whether Wales are leading in the game or not. 

While having a defensive-line that is incredibly tough to break down is absolutely vital, it has come at a cost in the eyes of some, with Wales not always boasting an attack that can cut their opposition open. Perhaps then, Wales have had the opposite objective to many other sides across rugby in recent years, instead needing to continue to improve upon their attack, something they have been doing well in the build-up to 2019. 

In the Six Nations of 2018, Wales were the second-highest scorers with 119 points in five matches, while they missed out on boasting the best defence by a single point to Ireland. What is proving to be a good barometer of attacking ability comes from the try bonus point system that the Six Nations now use, with Wales snatching two in their five games. While this may not sound particularly impressive, only Ireland notched more (3). Clearly, Wales have an attacking-line that can compete with the best, and if they can continue to improve then they will become even-more of a fearsome prospect. 

Wales continued this in the Autumn of 2018 as they notched 14 tries in four matches, with Liam Williams impressing on his return to action with three tries in Wales’ last two games. Of course, it should be noted that Wales scored nine tries in their 74-24 win over Tonga, while they drew a blank against Australian in their win, so perhaps scoring more tries against the top nations in the world is what they must focus upon going forward. 

George North’s position on the wing may not be quite as secure as it once was due to his problems with concussion which seem to have curtailed some of his bulldozing ability, but Wales have the likes of Josh Adams and Luke Morgan clearly in the plans of Gatland, while North is still a fine finisher when he gets going. Williams also looks very good on the wing, and his inclusion out wide means Gatland can utilise Halfpenny at full-back, something he seems to prefer doing in Tests, meaning North will have to fight hard to ensure he keeps his place, with competition pushing the best to get better. With Jonathan Davies and Hadleigh Parkes looking very good at their centre, Wales have a very strong backline, while Dan Biggar’s presence at fly-half gives a strong defensive ability, a huge presence under the high ball and a supreme boot from the tee, meaning they will feel that they have all the tools both in the forwards and backs to give any team on the planet some real problems. 

It honestly remains to be seen whether Wales can win the Word Cup this year, and they will likely look to forget about the competition all together, instead preferring to focus on the Six Nations, which is now less than two weeks away. 

If Gatland is to guide his side to yet another Grand Slam win, downing the likes of England and Ireland in the process, then the Red Dragon will be full of fire going to Japan, and they will be very difficult to stop. 

*Odds correct on 25/1/2019

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Are Wales the real deal in the Six Nations and the World Cup?

Wales enter into 2019 in great form, and Warren Gatland's men will have their eyes firmly set on a Six Nations triumph, which would set them up perfectly for the World Cup in Japan this year

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