You can’t predict much these days, but you can be sure, on any given weekend, an international-level coach will say, “we’re building a squad for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.” But does this hold much meaning?
It’s catchy, it moves the interview on, but when the winners and the losers are saying it, it seems a little empty. With the year ending, let’s look at who could win the 2023 World Cup based on their performances this year. We’ll start with those who could be said to have fared the worst – Wales.
Wales were briefly ranked the best team in the world for the first time last August. They’re now ninth having lost seven of their last nine games under new coach Wayne Pivac, et al. What started as an adjustment period during a streak of six losses beginning in the February Six Nations, finally ended in a disjointed 18-0 win against Georgia in the Autumn Nations Cup.
Yet, the usual program returned last weekend, albeit with a better showing as they lost 24-13 to England.
2023 RWC big issue – Old Dogs
Before the 2019 World Cup, analysts worked out that the “average, winning World Cup squad had an age of 27 years and 258 days”. New Zealand previously won in 2011 with a squad averaging 28 years and 127 days, whilst their 2015 squad was 29 years and 43 days. At the time, Wales were closest with an average age of 27 years and 246 days. They were outscored but scraped past 14-man France in the quarter-finals. They then lost narrowly to the Springboks in what may have been the driest, wettest semi-final ever. A mostly broken side finished the campaign in a 40-17 thrashing at the hand of the All Blacks.
The average age of the Wales team that started and lost against Ireland in the Autumn Nations Cup was 28.3 years old. On the bench, 27. They were in the age sweet spot, but the performance was as fragmented as it was against Scotland the week before and France the week before that. A similar team played in those games too.
Too Long in the Teeth
If age isn’t the main factor of a team’s detriment, as the All Blacks have shown, perhaps its age in the wrong positions. The playmakers at 9, 10, 13, 14, and 15 that started against Ireland were 30, 31, 32, 29, and 31 respectively. It could be argued they didn’t get the chance to shine due to the poor ruck attack and defence. A little energy might also be needed in the forward pack, five of whom were over 28 years old.
In comparison, France will play England in the final of the Autumn Nations Cup after finishing second on points difference in the 6 Nations. Their scrum-half is the 24-year-old player of the 6 Nations, Dupont. Their preferred fly-half is 21, whilst the back-up is 22. The oldest, usual starting backline players are Rattez, Vakatawa, and Bouthier at the age of 27. France made 10 changes for the Italy game and fielded a mismatch of debutants and former outliers. Whilst the performance was prone to natural mishaps in communication and fluidity, they still won by 31 points. Wales battled to win to a lesser margin against Georgia with their second-string side.
Decade Careers – when is long enough?
For Wales, the players aren’t necessarily too old, but they’ve been too comfortable for too long. 9 years on from the 2011 World Cup and George North (28), Taulupe Faletau (29), Lloyd Williams (30), Leigh Halfpenny (31), Jonathan Davies (32), Ken Owens (33), and Alun Wyn Jones (35) are still in the squad. A near 10-decade international career is an incredible and rare achievement in most teams, usually reserved for the best.
It’s not to detract from the achievements of the players, but have they really played at the top level for all those years, and are they still? How many new players have been blocked from developing in those positions over the past decade?
Grim Future for the ‘over 30 club’
The picture looks even grimmer when you consider 14 others in the squad will have crossed the age of 30 by the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
They include; Tomas Francis, Wyn Jones, Samson Lee, Jake Ball, Cory Hill, Will Rowlands, Josh Navidi, James Davies, Justin Tipuric, Gareth Davies, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, Jonah Holmes, and Liam Williams. It’s questionable – given their age – that most will make it to another World Cup injury-free, or at the level required to win.
Sure, players can’t be blamed for getting picked. It can’t be doubted they’ll give it the best they’ve got, but, at some point, they won’t be playing at their best. That’s when another player should take their place.
“But they’ve not got anyone better,” you may say. Wales is a small nation and that comes with the knock-on effects of limited funding and a shallow player pool, which ultimately means its less enticing to quality foreign players and coaches. Those issues aren’t ever going to change so long as Wales is a country of 3.1 million. The same issues haven’t prevented the All Blacks from winning multiple World Cups, even if they do use the Pacific Islands to bolster their squads. So, what Wales do to get to their first World Cup final in 2023?
The Solution – New Pups, & Wales’ 2023 Rugby World Cup
Age doesn’t always dictate maturity. It’s common for coaches to say that young, in-form players aren’t ready for test rugby and let them linger in the reserves. Louis Rees-Zammit waited the whole 6 Nations and only got capped in October. He got his first start against Georgia and looked sharp, not overwhelmed, or worried. Pivac has given eight new players caps, but many have come from the bench in drips and drabs with little time to make an impact, or all lumped together in a hodgepodge of confusion a la Georgia.
For young, in-form players to make the next step, they must start, and they must do so together consistently. If Pivac wants to build a team that’s going to make it beyond the semi-finals of the 2023 World Cup, he’s going to have to have a deep squad to draw from. That means swapping the players he knows for players he doesn’t know. It’s a process that’s begun, but not quite with the aggression required.
Promising Signs for the 2023 tournament
The likes of Tompkins, Williams, Rees-Zammit, Lewis-Hughes and Botham held their own against Georgia and again against England last weekend. Botham has only played professionally 13 times for the Blues, but he now has two Wales caps. His name may have preceded him, but the gamble paid off. Ioan Lloyd was released from the Wales camp to play for Bristol against Worcester last Saturday. He put in a man of the match performance at fullback. His teammate, Callum Sheedy led Bristol to a Challenge Cup trophy and Premiership semi-final last season. They’ve each been selected to play against Italy, the latter to start at fly-half. They prove that Wales do have fresh talent coming through, but they need to be nurtured, not just capped.
Pivac’s position as Wales coach is precarious. The team that he’s picked against Italy for the final game of 2020 indicates he’s willing to try new players. However, his decision to overlook new players throughout the competition in the forward pack, particularly in the tight five, may come back to haunt him come February.
Should Wales beat Italy comfortably, then Pivac will have a quiet Christmas and little will change for the upcoming Six Nations. But should they struggle, he’ll know it’s February 2021 that decides whether he will be the man in charge in 2023. And perhaps, with a little nudge of desperation, he’ll pick a mixture of young and in-form players, and at least have picked the best team for the future, and truly begun the cycle to the 2023 World Cup.
Could they win it? A lot of work needs to be done.
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