Rugby World Cup
The Rugby World Cup is finally here. How far will Wales go? How many heart attacks will the nation collectively suffer? Nobody knows for sure, but Owen Scourfield is here to make an educated guess.
Four years of blood, sweat and tears for every professional rugby player across the world, and four years of anticipation and excitement for every rugby fan worldwide, comes to a head on Fri 20 Sept, 11.45am UK time, as hosts Japan take on Russia in the opening match of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Tokyo.
For the first time since the competition’s inception in 1987, the tournament will be held in a country not traditionally associated with rugby union. However, the Japanese national team put a spanner in the works in 2015, producing the biggest upset in World Cup history by defeating former world champions South Africa. Subsequently, they became the first team to win three group games yet fail to progress to the knockout phase. This experience and success, though, could only help develop a country improving on the international rugby scene – in addition to helping promote a tournament in a country willing to throw everything behind a competition and put on a spectacle for visitors and TV viewers alike.
Closer to home, on the back of winning the 2019 Six Nations Grand Slam, Wales have endured a mixed bag leading up to the tournament. The unbeaten streak came to an end with a lacklustre performance against England in Twickenham, but getting rid of that tag going into the World Cup has its positive aspect. Add to that the yo-yo-like movement at the top of the World Rugby ranking table: Wales were the number one ranked team in the world for about a week, but have dropped down to fifth now. Our ability to perform with an underdog mentality has gone in Wales’ favour in past competitions, but our ability to string together a 15-game winning run, and beat six out of the seven teams beneath us in the rankings in the last 12 months, is cause to relinquish the ‘underdog’ term.
The mind games also start once again, as England coach Eddie Jones made clear after Wales’ victory in the return warmup game in Cardiff: “When you go to number one, you’re favourites.” Regardless, for those of us who remember living through the memorable ups and desperate downs of the 1990s and early 00s, to see Wales at number one in the world is a sight and a half.
From a squad point of view, Wales are looking strong across the board. Despite losing key starters Taulupe Faletau and Gareth Anscombe to nasty injuries, the depth available to replace is unbelievable. Dan Biggar again proved his doubters wrong with a man of the match performance in the second test against England last month, while the rest of us can be grateful that the headache of picking a back row is not a decision we have to make – Davies, Moriarty, Navidi, Shingler, Tipuric and Wainwright all putting their hands up for selection in the starting XV.
Ahead of their first group game against Georgia on Mon 23 Sept, the Wales backline shouldn’t change too much from the Six Nations: George North is coming into a great bit of form lately while Liam Williams and Josh Adams are looking sharp. The front five should pick themselves while, at the moment, any team with Alun Wyn Jones in has a shot of winning. With that said, the sending-home of Rob Howley just days before the start of the tournament for an alleged breach of betting regulations is a spanner in the works, to say the least. Whilst the injury crisis of four years ago was mostly pure bad luck, this one is painfully self-inflicted. But if anyone knows how to steady a ship in crisis mode, it’s Warren Gatland.
Outside of the national team, there is a strong Welsh coaching presence across the other nations. Russia are lead by former Ospreys head coach Lyn Jones and Shaun Connor. Putting Canada through their paces is former Wales captain Kingsley Jones. Meanwhile, Llanelli legend Phil Davies is head coach of Namibia, with Pontypridd cult figure Dale McIntosh as forwards coach and Wales international winger Mark Jones as backs coach.
Buzz had some time with a few of the players ahead of the World Cup. Like the rest of us, Leigh Halfpenny was also forced to enjoy the Grand Slam triumph back in March as a mere fan, with injury preventing him from making any appearances throughout the 2019 Six Nations. Despite missing out on adding a third Grand Slam to his resume, there is undoubted sincerity in his pride and praise of his teammates’ achievements. This is most apparent in Halfpenny’s rapturous assessment of Liam Williams, the man who essentially usurped his position as fullback, and who he thinks is contestably the best player in world rugby.
“He’s had an exceptional season and I’m absolutely delighted for him; he’s a great guy and we’re really good friends. To follow up a Grand Slam with Wales, with a Premiership title and a European Cup with Saracens, it’s pretty remarkable.”
However, despite the authenticity behind the adulation he heaps upon his teammates, there is also an underlying sense of missed opportunity. Halfpenny may well have been lucky enough to pick up two Grand Slams in his career, but they aren’t the sort of thing that one tires of winning, and at 30 years of age he may not got many more opportunities. It is perhaps missing out on his country’s latest success that has intensified Halfpenny’s World Cup aspirations; lighting the proverbial fire. He seems to be in a zone – consumed, almost. Even when discussing the infamously gruelling fitness regimes instilled by Warren Gatland, there is more of a reminiscent grin than a shudder of horror; this is a man who enjoys the journey, the hard work, the dedication that’s needed for that ultimate payoff.
This is apparent in Halfpenny’s detailed discussion of the team’s upcoming – at time of interview – visit to Switzerland for a high-altitude training camp, explaining how they “sleep high, and train low. We’ll sleep at a higher altitude up in the mountains, and then got a gondolier down for the training. Because you get used to a lack of oxygen, your body creates more red blood cells, so your oxygen efficiency is a lot better, and you can train harder.” George North, speaking to us a little later, concurs: “Switzerland was the toughest camp I’ve done. With the altitude it’s a real challenge physically and mentally to get you there but hopefully we’ll start seeing the rewards of that soon.”
Of course, if there’s one thing someone will take away from a chat with Leigh Halfpenny, it’s his desire to train as hard as he possibly can, and do everything within his power to get another crack at bringing the World Cup to Wales. He takes nothing for granted, nor assume that his past glory will guarantee him a spot in Gatland’s World Cup squad. “There’s a lot of hard work and training to be done to even earn a place on the plane to Japan, so that’s my main focus: to get a good summer of training done and stay injury free.”
Self-effacement aside, you’d have to be bold or stupid to bet against his inclusion: simply, if he’s fit he goes. He’s a proven top-class operator at international level, and a player who Gatland has always remained loyal to despite supporters’ occasional grumblings. His loyalty to Halfpenny seems to be only matched by that of Halfpenny’s to Gatland.
On being probed about life after Gatland, the Scarlets man was quick to emphasise just how big a pair of shoes Wayne Pivac and co will have to fill. “What Gatland and his coaching staff have achieved over the course of the time that they’ve been coaching Wales has been unbelievable. For Wales to win three Grand Slams and a Six Nations Championship, it’s absolutely incredible. For Wayne Pivac and his new staff, it’ll be about trying to continue that success.”
Whether or not Wales can finally lay their hands on rugby’s grandest prize is anyone’s guess. The loss against England brought their incredible winning streak to a jarring halt, and fellow Group D members Australia will undoubtedly have their tails up after putting 40 points past the All Blacks. However, if every member of the Squad has Leigh Halfpenny’s obsessive desire to raise the Webb Ellis trophy, then it’s hard to bet against them. On their day, Wales are as good if not better than any other team in the world. Here’s to a feast of entertaining rugby across the next six weeks.
Leigh Halfpenny interview by Rhys Fisher
George North interview by Kevin Pedlar
Rugby World Cup 2019, Japan, Fri 20 Sept-Sat 1 Nov. All games viewable on ITV in the UK. Info: www.rugbyworldcup.com