Ahead of the Rugby World Cup we’re assessing the chances of each of the home nations. We asked Wales’ most-capped skipper of all time, grand slam-winning Sam Warburton, what he expects from Warren Gatland’s men.
Thoughts on the squad?
The only real surprise for me was Rob Evans because he’s been so consistent. I thought Rhys Carre played well against Ireland and is probably the most dynamic and explosive front row player that we’ve got. It looks as though Alun Wyn Jones will be asked to cover tighthead and loosehead, like Joe Marler will be for England, all of which enables them to take an extra player in the back row.
Once you hear the justifications for the decisions there are no real surprises, but I do feel for Rob. It’s just unfortunate timing that he’s picked up knocks and not been able to nail down a consistent run of games in the side, because he’s been great for Wales. If there was a Lions tour a year ago he’d have had a shout, but that’s just how things work out. Ryan Jones and Gavin Henson are both Lions but they never went to a World Cup, it can be strange like that.
In the back row, Josh Navidi has played at number eight on and off for the last seven years or so, and he started there against Ireland in the warmup game. He can do anything across the entire back row so is exactly the type of player that you want in a World Cup squad – I’m expecting him to have a big tournament.
Most excited about?
I like the youth in the backline. There are the mainstays - the likes of Dan Biggar, Jonathan Davies, George North and Leigh Halfpenny – but I really like that they’ve gone with Hallam Amos because I think he’s been exciting at 15. I’m also a fan of Owen Watkin and Tomos Williams, both of whom are going into their first World Cup. It feels like quite a nice mix of those that have been there for a while and those who will add some freshness to the squad – I like the peppering of the youth among the old heads.
Most worried about?
Nothing really. Losing Talupe Faletau and Gareth Anscombe were both huge blows, you can’t get away from that, but the depth in that position means I haven’t got too many concerns. Anscombe is a quality player but because we’ve got Biggar and Rhys Patchell at 10 and, even if they had taken Jarrod Evans, I’d still have been happy with the depth in that position.
Even though Ross Moriarty and Navidi are fantastic players and can both play at eight, they’d both probably admit they’d prefer to be on the flank. Toby is an out-and-out specialist, who’s world class in his position, so he’s the biggest loss we’ve had although I still think we’ve been lucky to have a squad good enough to cope with the injuries overall. After Anscombe’s injury in the first warmup game I did think “Oh here we go”, but thankfully there hasn’t been any more since.
Faith in the coach?
Absolutely. I’d love him to bow out with success – he’s been an incredible servant to Welsh rugby. He’s the most recognised face in Wales right now and probably has been over the last 10 years. He’s turned the team from underdogs to favourites and completely changed the psychology of the public and the players. I just hope they can do him and themselves proud.
What constitutes success?
If I was still captain, going into this World Cup, I’d be expecting to win it. Knowing some of the players in that squad like I do, that will be what they want to achieve and anything less will be an underachievement. I’m not trying to put pressure on them but I know the talk in that camp will be about getting to a World Cup final and then all bets are off. Given how they’ve performed over the last 18 months, anything less than the final will feel like a real disappointment, as tough as that sounds.
How far will they go?
I think they’ll get through the pool, although I think Georgia and Fiji will be tougher than people expect – I wouldn’t be surprised if in one of those games they go in at half-time with Welsh fans sweating a bit. They’ll pull through, though. Once they’re in the quarter-finals, it wouldn’t surprise me if they made it all the way to the final and it wouldn’t surprise me if they got knocked out straight away because I just don’t think there’s much separating the top teams. I think there are six teams that can genuinely challenge for the trophy. The quarter-finals are all going to 50/50 calls.
You look at where Ireland and New Zealand were last year, and even though they’ve dipped, they still have the same teams, same coaching setups and are still very good. It happened with England. They had that amazing streak, dropped off and now they’re coming back again, all with roughly the same group of players. If you’ve had that, you can rediscover it, so Ireland and New Zealand are fully capable of turning it on.
Who will contest the final, and who will win?
It wouldn’t surprise me if England and South Africa made the final, maybe beating Wales and New Zealand in the semis. I’ve been seriously impressed with South Africa recently. When it comes to Lions tours and World Cups you always get very motivated South African teams. I think they might go all the way.
Sam was speaking on behalf of Land Rover, Official Worldwide Partner of Rugby World Cup 2019. With over 20 years of heritage supporting rugby at all levels, Land Rover is celebrating what makes rugby, rugby. #LandRoverRugby
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