First Game an Opportunity for Wales

“If you (media) can do your jobs and write us off as much as possible and we can come in there being written off, which seems to be happening at the moment, that’s the best situation for a Wales team to be in.”  – Warren Gatland

When Wales play their opening fixture on Sunday afternoon, it will signal the commencement of one of Wales’ toughest ever World Cup campaigns. On top of the actual group they find themselves in, Wales preparations have been disrupted by two serious injuries to key players.

Sunday afternoon is their opportunity to put time all of that behind them. Players can’t be focused on those missing, however valuable they are to the team. Wales have never really been seen as genuine contenders to qualify from the group, more so now they have lost Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb.

It’s that slightly unfamiliar underdog spirit, as highlighted in the quote from Warren Gatland above, that Wales will seek to use. Tomorrow’s opposition shouldn’t provide too stern a challenge – they have recently lost 30-8 and 40-0 to Japan (though given today’s result that may be a good result…) – and no-one will bat an eye-lid should Wales notch up a huge score.

There will obviously be some nerves. Wales have chosen not quite an experimental side, but one that has offered some protection for the top players, in preparation for the game against England next weekend; there is no place for Jamie Roberts, Alun Wyn Jones or Taulupe Faletau. In situations like these in the past, Wales have struggled.

They have a settled “first choice” team, and when changes are made to that, Wales lose their normal rhythm. For Wales tomorrow though, that shouldn’t be an issue. Tomorrow will be all about a five point win, and amassing a score to aid the points difference figure that may well come into play at the end of the group.

Perhaps the most interesting choice is James King at Number 8. Eyebrows were raised when Warren Gatland said that Wales needed to check the cover they had available for Faletau. Surely, a World Cup is not the place to do this; shouldn’t it already be clear what’s available before you reach this stage?

That’s the perceived wisdom. However, this World Cup has a different feel to it for some teams. For instance, England have put their faith in an untested centre partnership and seem to be unsure of their best second row combinations; their back three unit is also fairly interchangeable. The same goes for other teams.

Wales are in a similar position. Injuries have disrupted the optimum XV, but this is where the work Warren Gatland and his team have put in on the training ground will come into play. We will find out whether all Wales preparations have been enough to see them through this very tough group.

However, they are far from the only team with issues, concerns were also raised about how Ireland seem to be targeting their game against France to peak, rather than hitting the ground running at the start of the tournament. Indeed, England were far from convincing last night, and again there seems to be something of a pattern for a different approach all round.

Tomorrow will be the first step on the road for Wales. During the press conference following yesterday’s announcement, Warren Gatland was clear that his team for England was already set in stone. It appears Wales’ approach will be to utilise as many of their squad as possible. Whether that will be a successful approach won’t be apparent until the end of the group stages.

This is an opportunity for Wales to begin positively though. They have the added incentive to prove that four years ago was no fluke, and the sense of injustice that they weren’t able to complete the job they started so well will be another motivating factor.

As for Uruguay, a glimpse of World Rugby’s You Tube channel will offer you an idea of their approach to this tournament. Of course, they will want to make their mark, but they are here, not fearful, but grateful to be playing four of the Top Teams in the World.

Wales need to be careful they don’t take anything for granted. The banana skin is there, as South Africa proved today – but surely tomorrow will not be a shock story, but one of a job well done in preparation for sterner challenges. The spirit of “us against the world” will be a big part of the changing room, and will be useful as the tournament goes on. Here’s hoping for an entertaining afternoon!

L Williams (Scarlets), A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), C Allen (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Scarlets), H Amos (Newport Gwent Dragons); R Priestland (Bath), G Davies (Scarlets); P James (Ospreys), S Baldwin (Ospreys), S Lee (Scarlets), J Ball (Scarlets), L Charteris (Racing 92), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues, capt), J Tipuric (Ospreys), J King (Ospreys).

Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets), A Jarvis (Ospreys), T Francis (Exeter), D Day (Bath), D Lydiate (Ospreys), R Moriarty (Gloucester), Lloyd Williams (Cardiff Blues), M Morgan (Bristol).
“Main Photo”