Four years of meticulous planning by management teams around the globe is about to be put to the ultimate test. New Zealand welcomes the rugby world to its shores and will rightly start as favourites, a tag which has been too much of a burden since the first event in 1987. They can’t choke again, can they?
Another New Zealander feeling the pressure of expectation is Warren Gatland. He leads Wales to the World Cup knowing his adopted country have had their troubles in this tournament in the past.
However, Gatland will be relieved that his strategy to emphasise conditioning in the summer appears to have paid off. Two superior second-half performances against England have silenced the doubters. Eight years ago Steve Hansen did the same and Wales went on to light up RWC 2003, very nearly beating England in the quarter-finals. We have short memories in Wales.
The loss of captain Matthew Rees is a bitter blow. The Scarlets hooker has developed into a fine leader and a powerful ball-carrier, but it’s his set-piece attributes that will be missed the most.
Rees completed a powerful scrummaging front row along with Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins, and the scrum is vital in Wales’ plans against pool rivals Fiji and Samoa. Dominance there would allow them to control the pace of the game, gain penalties for field position and ultimately gain points via five-metre scrums.
Wales’ lineout is delicate at best but none of Rees’s deputies are particularly dependable. This is as important as the scrum because Gatland has built his game plan around Jamie Roberts crossing the gain-line from first phase. This requires clean and accurate possession – which has been a rarity in Rees’s absence.
What will have lifted Gatland’s spirits is the return to form of Roberts. The brief presence of Gavin Henson during the summer may have given the centre the gentle nudge he needed, as his position in the team came under a possible threat for the first time. Whatever the reason, Roberts is back and setting targets beyond the tackle line.
The captaincy has gone to Sam Warburton, a gifted flanker with a nose for the ball and the tenacity to steal it. His leadership will be tested against Fiji and Samoa, matches that are likely to require shrewd decisions in a tactical battle.
The World Cup is likely to be a final fling for many stalwarts. Grand Slam winners Jenkins, Stephen Jones, Shane Williams and Ryan Jones will not grace this stage again. It wouldn’t be fitting for their World Cup career to end in the group stages.
I believe Wales will make it out of the pool, second to the Springboks, but on current form they’re not semi-finalists. Staying injury-free is key and if they get on a roll they’ll be a handful for any team.
This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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