It is not a happy time to be a Welsh rugby fan at the moment, with Wales really struggling for form and going through a change in leadership less than a year before the start of the Rugby World Cup, and that is not to mention the off-field issues that have surrounded their domestic clubs and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) over the last year.
The 2023 World Cup does look on paper like being a far from successful tournament for them, but what the team and their fans alike will be hoping is that it is the start of a new era and one in which they have a more settled team and a better outlook for the future.
When Wayne Pivac was appointed as Warren Gatland’s successor at the end of the 2019 World Cup, there was hope that the country, whilst accepting that the immense success of Gatland’s reign would be hard to replicate, would at least be able to retain their status of being one of the world’s most dominant teams and a side that no-one relished coming up against.
Sadly, despite a few positive moments in his three-year tenure, Pivac’s time in charge of Wales was largely unsuccessful, with the team falling away from where they were during his predecessor’s time in charge, and his sacking in December last year after a poor run and the fans turning on him came as no surprise to many.
What was eyebrow-raising though was that Gatland agreed to return to the role, with some fearing that where Wales are now would lead to him undoing the good work that he had done during his last stint and leaving his reputation in tatters.
It is a risk that Gatland clearly didn’t mind when he came in, and, even though he has stated since that he wouldn’t have returned had he appreciated the full extent of Welsh rugby’s problems, it is now down to him and his players to ensure that the national team makes a rapid return to their former status in order to bring some positivity to the situation at least.
A lot of what Gatland has demanded from the teams that he has coached in his career has come down to getting on the front foot, controlling possession, breaking through the gain line and using space if it is available. It does require a certain type of player to implement that vision effectively, with strong ball-carriers and players who don’t mind going through phases of hard rugby both essential, but he has almost always had those profiles available to him and so has been able to deliver success.
In the current Wales crop, he has found it slightly more problematic to introduce this way of playing, with some of those who were essential components of his previous tenure now either finished with international rugby or on their way out, and the new generation not yet in a position to play as he needs them to.
For that reason, whilst there have been some signs of things beginning to click, patience will be needed in the stands and boardrooms, because repairing the damage will not be a short-term process.
There is just as much work to do defensively as there is in attack, with this area of the game being something that Wales were especially strong in beforehand, but have not been of late, largely due to the absence of Shaun Edwards in the coaching team.
Edwards, now in charge of France’s defence (and responsible for their newfound resoluteness without the ball) was the person credited with making Wales a really tough team to play against during Gatland’s previous reign, but the fact that the New Zealander is now unable to rely on his former lieutenant means that he will need to find new ways of helping the team to rediscover their rigidity at the back.
If they are to re-establish themselves as a force in the global game at the World Cup, then this is where they will need to show the most improvement, and it could be worth watching to see just how easy or hard they are to break down as the tournament goes on.
With Gatland still trying to find the right balance between introducing new talent and keeping experienced players around, he will need the support of his captain to ensure that everything on the field is running as smoothly as possible with regards to the bonds between players of different generations.
With the long-serving Alun-Wyn Jones now officially retired from the international game, the New Zealander has opted to name hooker Dewi Lake and flanker Jac Morgan as co-captains for the World Cup. However, Wales will still be looking towards their experienced players when things get tough, and one of those that will need to lead from the front and support the leadership team is Dan Biggar, who led the team in Jones’ absence at the 2022 Six Nations and who will retire from international duty after this year’s tournament.
Biggar is a player that Wales look to both for quality on the ball, with his ability to find space a key strength in his game, and for his ability to lead by example, and, regardless of whether he has the armband or not, he will be a player that Wales will depend on in France. He will want to end his Wales career on a high, and the team will hope that he can make the difference for them as they hope to bring an end to the disappointment of recent times.
It seems difficult to predict Wales going deep into the competition, given where they currently are, and it does look likely that trying to achieve certain targets will be a more viable way for them to measure how well they are doing, such as winning a set number of games or ensuring that they can play a certain way.
Nevertheless, Gatland demands success, and, with their pool being so open and them coming up against teams in Australia, Fiji, Georgia and Portugal that they should be challenging at the very least, it would be a surprise to see them any further down the table than third. That would at least qualify them for the 2027 World Cup and would give them something to build on and look towards for the future, which could be what they need to spur them on as they continue to find their feet again.