Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.
And so we reach the end of the list. Last – but certainly not least (except for England v Wales banter purposes) – we will look at Wales.
Finishing 2ⁿᵈ in Pool A at RWC2015 secured Wales’ automatic qualifying spot for the 2019 tournament alongside knocking out cross-border rivals England.
Wales kicked off the year in the best way possible, winning their first Six Nations Grand Slam – their first Championship victory since 2019. Their warm-up matches were not so successful, however, as they narrowly beat England at home but lost heavily at Twickenham, before losing home and away to Ireland. In these matches, the lack of big ball carriers in the forwards and also their limited strength at the scrum were heavily exploited, while they also lost starting fly half Gareth Anscombe to a serious knee injury that will see him miss the entire 2019/20 season.
- Pool Stages (1ˢᵗ in Pool D)
- Wales 43-14 Georgia
- Australia 25-29 Wales
- Wales 29-17 Fiji
- Wales 35-13 Uruguay
- Wales 20-19 France
- Wales 16-19 South Africa
- Bronze Final
- New Zealand 40-17 Wales
Could Wales have had a much better order of matches? Having Georgia as their opening match meant that they would have a physical challenge to get them up and running in the tournament, but also a match that should still be a safe enough win. And that is exactly what the match ended up being as Wales scored 3 tries in the opening quarter but had to deal with a fightback from the Lelos at the start of the second half. Jonathan Davies was running some great attacking lines and Gareth Davies was looking very dangerous as Wales clinically finished the chances they created. Notably, Hadleigh Parkes suffered a broken hand in this match but continued to play, and would play the rest of the tournament with this injury, which somewhat limited his effectiveness.
Next up was the match that (following 2 early losses for Fiji) would decide the group. Wales put in a huge performance against the Wallabies, with 2 first half tries backed up by a massively impressive defensive performance. Gareth Davies dominated Will Genia, continually reading the play and making interceptions, scoring one of the tries off this, while Aaron Wainwright was a huge presence in the back row with his high intensity play and turnovers. Special mention must also go to Rhys Patchell, who had to come on early as a concussion replacement for Dan Biggar but adapted well to the game despite not being as defensively solid usually as the man he had replaced. Fiji presented a massive challenge and Wales can certainly consider themselves lucky that some decisions went their way, including a 7ᵗʰ minute yellow card for Ken Owens for a tackle that was clumsy at best, dangerous at worst. Josh Adams started poorly in defense but recovered well to score a crucial hattrick, while Gareth Davies put in another strong all-round performance as Wales finally pulled away entering the final quarter. Finally, against Uruguay, Wales rested a number of starters and it showed, as a number of try-scoring opportunities were wasted – Hallam Amos notably having an entire hattrick chalked off.
Going into the knockouts, Wales were dealt an early blow with Jonathan Davies failing a late fitness test before the quarterfinal against France, leading tot he far less experienced Owen Watkin coming in at 13. Things got even worse in the first half as Josh Navidi suffered a tournament-ending injury 27 minutes in, and his replacement Ross Moriarty was shown a yellow card for a high tackle just minutes after coming on. Wales were creating little in attack but putting in a strong defensive performance with Gareth Davies and Aaron Wainwright again the standout players, but Wales produced very little in attack even after France went down to 14 players for Sébastien Vahaamahina’s elbow on Wainwright, and it took a mistake from France on their own line to give Wales the victory.
Against South Africa, Wales’ injury woes continued as they lost Tomas Francis and George North in the first half. In one of the most boring games of the tournament, both teams tried to play defensive, territory-based rugby, while Dan Biggar and Handré Pollard traded kicks at goal, both finishing perfect. In the end, the superior strength of the Springboks pack won out and gave Pollard the chance to kick the winning penalty with just 4 minutes remaining. This loss set them up for a match against the All Blacks with 3ʳᵈ place at stake, but the Welsh injuries (from both before and during the tournament) left them unable to compete with a New Zealand team that was able to bring in the quality of Reiko Ioane and Ben Smith as fresh options. While Josh Adams continued to impress on the wing and Rhys Patchell brought a great attacking game, but ultimately the defence had no answer for the All Blacks and Warren Gatland’s time as Wales head coach ended with a loss.
This is a big moment for Wales as they move on from Warren Gatland, with Wayne Pivac and a new stable of coaches taking over. Pivac has done good work with the Scarlets, bringing rugby that is not just attractive but also successful, so I have big hopes as a rugby fan (but not as an Englishman) that this continues with Wales.
As if a change of coaching staff wasn’t enough, we have probably seen a number of big names in the squad play their last World Cup game, with Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Bradley Davies, Aaron Shingler, Hadleigh Parkes, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny and Justin Tipuric all in the 30s at the start of the 2019 tournament. The good news is that there is a spine there of experience that is slightly younger, while the next generation is already starting to come through in Adam Beard, Ellis Jenkins, Aaron Wainwright, Rhys Carré, Owen Lane and (potentially soon) Louis Rees-Zammit, while newly-eligible Willis Halaholo and Johnny McNicholl and Rhys Webb (who is returning to Wales in the summer) will also add some real quality and depth to the back line.
The important thing for Wales now is to find a balance. The back line has often been maybe too defensive under Gatland, without enough big carriers in the pack to back this up. Wales now need to try bringing in some bigger carriers in the pack, while also getting a better balance in the back line between attack and defence, something that I think Pivac will be able to do.
It may take a while – especially with Anscombe missing this season and Taulupe Faletau only just returning from injury – but i expect big things from Wales int he coming years.