Sixteen years ago, in France, a shock loss to Fiji precipitated a group-stage exit and an almost identical situation in the same location could well be on the cards here. Make no mistake, Sunday’s opening clash with Fiji will likely define Wales’s entire tournament.
Yet the optimists can look to what happened 12 years ago. A young Welsh side, with low expectations, dealt with the Fijian challenge in the pools, overperformed and made it all the way to the semi-finals. In fact, but for the most controversial red card handed out to Sam Warburton in the first half of that last-four clash, they would have made a first-ever Rugby World Cup final, rather than going down 9-8 to France.
Today’s Wales team have similarly moderate expectations to the 2011 group and are certainly inexperienced, with 10 of the 33-man squad aged 24 or under and 12 of them having 13 or fewer caps.
However, the 2011 unit weren’t quite as clearly in full-blown crisis mode. As a reminder, this year has seen the Welsh Rugby Union embroiled in a racism, sexism, homophobia and misogyny scandal as an antiquated, outdated governing body proved it wasn’t fit for purpose. The slow path to reform and regaining the trust of the fans has at least begun.
There was also the sacking of their coach nine months out from a World Cup and the return of a man whose exit four years prior had been celebrated in some quarters because his brand of winning rugby wasn’t deemed exciting enough. As results cratered after Warren Gatland’s initial exit, it soon became clear that this was a luxury problem to have had.
Gatland’s return certainly didn’t provide an immediate resolution to all the underlying issues. The players went on strike during the Six Nations due to uncertain futures and came perilously close to forcing the postponement of the match against England. Gatland subsequently said that if he’d known how bad things were, he never would have returned to the role – in another kick to the stomach of the already badly winded WRU.
A slew of abrupt pre-World Cup retirements from long-term staples such as Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb only added to the feeling that something is badly wrong behind the scenes. In fact, Wales found themselves rivalling and perhaps even exceeding the disarray of their mortal enemies from across the Severn Bridge.
But hope springs eternal. Maybe Gatland can drag a tune out of his group of talented, but young, troops. In the likes of Jac Morgan, Louis Rees-Zammit, Taine Basham and Rio Dyer, the next generation of talent is there, even if it feels like this World Cup will come far too soon for them.
The lopsided draw has certainly worked in their favour. Yes, Fiji and Georgia are too dangerous to simply disregard, while a severely flawed Australia are still more than capable of putting something together, but compared to a group containing three of the top five sides in the world in Ireland, South Africa and Scotland, Pool C looks very inviting. A winnable quarter-final against one of Argentina, England or Japan would follow and it’s not hard to plot a path to the semi-finals that doesn’t even need Wales to hit fifth gear.
Of course, their World Cup history is littered with slip-ups against Pacific island nations. The Fiji debacle in Nantes in 2007 is seen by many as the most embarrassing moment in Welsh rugby history but the 1991 defeat to Western Samoa – that prompted the famous “thank goodness we weren’t playing the whole of Samoa” quip – gives it a run for its money. And once Western Samoa had indeed been renamed Samoa, Wales promptly lost to them at the 1999 World Cup anyway. All of which makes the opening clash with Fiji this time around vital.
Wales have gone through a tougher 2023 than perhaps any other team and this is not a perfectly honed, vintage Wales squad entering their prime in time for the tournament. But with Gatland back at the helm and the spirit of 2011 attainable, fans shouldn’t abandon all hope just yet.
Coach: Warren Gatland
Co-captains: Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake
Key Player: Jac Morgan – A lot has already been put on Morgan’s plate, who at the age of just 23 and with his number of international caps barely into double figures is co-captain of a Wales side in disarray and desperately searching for its identity. He’s also their most dynamic back-rower, the latest jackalling, turnover-stealing, stout-defending Welsh openside off the production line. He’s taken everything thrown at him in his stride and will need to continue to do so if Wales are to find success in France.
Rising star: Louis Rees-Zammit– There are plenty to choose from, with 10 of the squad aged 24 or under, but Rees-Zammit is still on the rise despite feeling like he’s been around forever. Still only 22 years old, the winger burst onto the international scene like a fireball in 2020, then underwent some growing pains but appears to have found his feet again. His electric pace and attacking brilliance have never been in question but the defence and kick-game prowess are still a work in progress.
Big question: Can Gatland mould a talented young squad into an effective, disciplined unit in time?
Forwards: Nicky Smith, Tomas Francis, Gareth Thomas, Dillon Lewis, Corey Domachowski, Henry Thomas; Dewi Lake (co-captain), Ryan Elias, Elliot Dee; Will Rowlands, Adam Beard, Daffyd Jenkins; Jac Morgan (co-captain), Dan Lydiate, Taulupe Faletau, Aaron Wainwright, Tommy Reffell, Taine Basham, Christ Tshiunza.
Backs: Tomos Williams, Gareth Davies; Dan Biggar, Sam Costelow, Gareth Anscombe; Nick Tompkins, George North, Johnny Williams, Mason Grady; Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Liam Williams, Rio Dyer, Leigh Halfpenny.
Sunday 10 September: Wales vs Fiji, Pool C (Bordeaux, 8pm)
Saturday 16 September: Wales vs Portugal, Pool C (Nice, 4.45pm)
Sunday 24 September: Wales vs Australia, Pool C (Lyon, 8pm)
Saturday 7 October: Wales vs Georgia, Pool C (Nantes, 2pm)