Wales seek final hurrah for Gatland

Wales head coach Warren Gatland
Wales head coach Warren Gatland
Image: Steve Haag / Gallo Images

Wales head to the Rugby World Cup with genuine title aspirations after Warren Gatland's side spent two weeks in late-August as the globally top-ranked team.

Gatland has forged a combative team around no-nonsense stalwart captain Alun Wyn Jones and their rise to the top of the rankings coincided with a string of 11 home victories dating back to 2017.

That run included a Grand Slam in last season's Six Nations, Gatland's third since taking over in late 2007 (2008, 2012). The hard-nosed Kiwi also guided Wales to a Six Nations title in 2013 and currently enjoys a record of 66 wins from 116 matches in charge.

But there have been critics, notably when it comes to performances against southern hemisphere opposition. Under his watch, Wales have been beaten 11 straight times by New Zealand, and the team has racked up only two wins from 11 games against Australia and four from 14 against South Africa.

And the team's fourth place in the 2011 World Cup came after just one victory over a major power, Ireland, in the quarter-finals. The 2015 World Cup saw Wales dramatically beat hosts England in the pool stages, but they went down to South Africa in the quarter-finals.

This time around, Wales have been drawn against Australia, Fiji, Georgia and Uruguay in Pool D.

Gatland - who will go on to lead Super Rugby franchise the Chiefs after leaving Wales before taking a year off for a third stint as British and Irish Lions coach - reckons he will have his strongest ever squad for his third World Cup in charge of the Welsh.

"I think it's the best squad in terms of the depth we've got," he said.

"If we do pick up a few injuries like we did in 2015, I think we would be able to cope so much better now.

"The expectation from ourselves is that we will be very disappointed if we don't make the quarter-finals, and that's step one. Then you take every game as it comes."

Gatland would, however, have to break a trend, the World Cup never having been won by a team coached by a foreigner.

"I think we've massively over-achieved in what we've done in the last 12 years," he said.

"And we are not finished yet. If we are mentally and physically right, we're capable of beating anyone in the world. I honestly believe we will go a long way at this World Cup."

With Jones skippering the team from lock, Wales have had to overcome the loss through injury of influential No 8 Taulupe Faletau and in-form flyhalf Gareth Anscombe.

The onus will be on Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell in the play-making role, while Gatland again did not shy away from bold selections in leaving experienced Scarlets props Rob Evans and Samson Lee behind.

Wing George North and hooker Ken Owens will be featuring in the tournament for a third time, while Jonathan Davies and Kiwi-born Hadleigh Parkes form a strong midfield pairing.

Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric will lead Wales in the battle of the loose, so crucial in modern rugby, in a settled side whose best chance of getting to the final could well be in Japan.