Rugby World Cup – Group D preview: Wales to state claim as tournament favourites?
Wales enter the Rugby World Cup as Six Nations champions after completing the Grand Slam in March and will want to state their authority in the Group D. Fiji will be keen to capitalise if a struggling Australia slip up, while Georgia and Uruguay complete the final World Cup pool. Jamie Braidwood previews.
The 2019 Six Nations champions and Grand Slam winners briefly threatened to enter the World Cup as the No. 1 ranked team in world rugby following a remarkable and historic run of wins from 2018 to 2019. The 14-game streak, which culminated with Wales winning the Grand Slam on home soil against Ireland in March, came to an end against England in August, with Wales suffering further defeat at home to Ireland in their final World Cup warm-up game.
Those defeats, as well as the World Cup-ending injury to fly-half Gareth Anscombe, have brought Wales back down to earth ahead of the tournament. But don’t count them out yet, Wales have perhaps the strongest XV in the lower half of the World Cup draw and would be confident of beating England in the last-four to reach the final.
After Wales were rocked by injuries during the 2015 World Cup, head coach Warren Gatland made it his mission to build depth in the squad so that they would be better prepared if they were to suffer again during the 2019 tournament. Gatland has done just that, bringing through several players into the squad and developing a winning mentality within the team. Wales may never have a better chance to win a World Cup and with Gatland stepping down following the tournament after 12 years in charge and three Grand Slams, what a send off it would be if they were to do it.
If indeed Wales’ World Cup dreams do go down to a semi-final against England then full-back Liam Williams will be key, as he was in Wales’ 13-6 win over England in the Six Nations in February. Williams was outstanding in the air that day, completely shutting down England’s kicking game and offering a destructive threat going forwards.
Williams completes an impressive back three for Wales, which also includes George North and Josh Adams, but there is also a chance Leigh Halfpenny returns to competitive action and Williams shifts to his more natural position on the wing. Dan Biggar will also be key to Wales’ chances as he steps in for the injured Anscombe at No. 10.
What a crazy year it has been for the Wallabies. Australia’s fall from the top order of world rugby was underlined by an abysmal 2018 which saw them lose a record nine matches for the second time in three years. An abject showing in the 2018 Rugby Championship was followed by defeats in England and Wales leaving head coach Michael Cheika under pressure.
They rebounded to put a record 47 points past New Zealand in an impressive win earlier this summer, before the All Blacks got their revenge in a 36-0 shutout at Eden Park. Meanwhile, there has also been the fallout surrounding star full-back Israel Foloa, who was sacked by the team for posting anti-gay messages on social media. After finishing as runners up in 2015, it’s hard to make an argument for Australia going anywhere near as far in Japan.
Cheika will need to call upon the experience of leading Australia to the World Cup final in 2015 if he is to have any hope of inspiring the Wallabies go all the way in Japan. It was quite a remarkable achievement for the coach, given he had only been in the job for a year prior to the 2015 tournament. Cheika has retained some key members in his squad from four years ago, such as the influential back row pairing of captain Michael Hooper and David Pocock, the prop Sekope Kepu, scrum half Will Genia and fly half Bernard Foley. Australia may have the players but they are not the same team as four years ago, they better remember quickly.
David Pocock has emerged in recent years as one of world rugby’s masters at the breakdown. It is such a crucial part of the modern game, and Pocock thrives on his ability to disrupt play and earn his side possession by making turnovers. Expect him and Michael Hooper to be Australia’s bright sparks in Japan.
The strongest of the Pacific Island nations, Fiji represent the biggest danger to Wales and Australia’s hopes of qualifying from Group D. Fiji enjoyed an excellent tour of Europe in November 2018, where they played some exciting rugby and briefly led Scotland in a defeat at Murrayfield before they secured a famous win over France at the Stade de France two weeks later.
Fiji have some recognisable names to Scottish rugby fans in their 31-man squad, such as the Glasgow Warriors pair of Nikola Matawalu and Mesu Dolokoto, as well as Edinburgh’s Viliame ‘Bill’ Mata – who was part of the Fiji rugby sevens team who famously won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. There is also the former Glasgow Warrior and 2018 European player of the year Leone Nakarawa and Premiership star Vereniki Goneva, two weapons central to a Fiji side that cannot be taken lightly.
The Georgians have been knocking on the door for a space in the Six Nations for several years, and a strong performance in the World Cup would only strengthen their claim. The Lelos are renowned for the size of their forward pack and are a danger to any side in the world from set pieces.
Georgia are coming off two disappointing and comprehensive defeats to Scotland, so are set to struggle against Wales and Australia. A win against Fiji to add to a certain victory over Uruguay would be considered a success. Georgia have failed to emerge from the group stages in four previous attempts. That figure is surely set to become five.
Los Teros won all eight of their qualifying games as they booked a place at the Rugby World Cup finals for the fourth time. Ranked 19th in the world, Uruguay are by far South America’s second best team, but are also some way off Argentina and have lost all 42 matches they have played against their continental rivals. That should emphasise the gulf between Uruguay and their Group D opponents.