IIf England have fallen out of favor since their 2019 highs, Wales appear to have fallen at least as far over the same period. Their Grand Slam that year and the painful 19-16 loss to the Springboks in the semi-finals of the World Cup, thanks to a Handré Pollard penalty five minutes from time, could have happened to another team in another universe.
They have since (like England) won a Six Nations title two years ago but have finished fifth in the other three championships, including the last two. This year was particularly annoying. Wayne Pivac’s sacking in late 2022 paved the way for Warren Gatland’s return, as if Wales believed success was certain to follow their greatest maestro.
Unfortunately, since then there have been strikes by players, a trawl of the region’s finances, fifth-place finish (and the great fortune of having made it in the first place), some oddly-timed retirements and a rather narrow bye-loss to the Springboks in August more than three Points. You fell to number 10 in the world rankings.
That makes them the third-highest team in their World Cup group, which has had few fatalities even when Wales have been good. Fiji may have shaken up the rankings and World Cup predictions after beating England at Twickenham, but were ahead of Wales even before that historic victory.
However, Pool C is the tightest considering all teams’ rankings. Fiji, Australia, Wales and Georgia are seventh, ninth, tenth and eleventh respectively, with Portugal being the best-placed fifth team in all groups in 16th place. Portugal join Uruguay, but otherwise they are the same teams that made up Pool D at the last World Cup.
Wales won this group. Such an outcome is not out of the question either, but only the most optimistic Welsh would be convinced of it. Forget the threat from Fiji, it will not have escaped Wales that they were beaten at home to Georgia in the autumn.
Pundits may have been tipping Fiji on a win over Wales in Bordeaux on the opening weekend for some time, but the result against England now means the whole world will be watching. Certainly Wales will not have taken much for granted.
Nantes in 2007, when Fiji beat them in one of their greatest World Cup games, casts enough of a shadow to be remembered 16 years later. And now Fiji has a fully professional team, native to the islands, the Fiji Drua of Super Rugby, onto which the usual phalanx of brilliant athletes playing abroad can be grafted. No wonder they defeated England.
After the era of Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones it’s hard to believe but Wales are led into the fray by two young players few have heard of and Gatland welcomes the concept of co-captain.
Jac Morgan, the prolific striker in the back row, is the more experienced of the two, having won 11 caps by the age of 23. Dewi Lake, his teammate with the Ospreys, is 24 and has played nine times for Wales’ Hooker. Together they replace as captain Ken Owens, the veteran hooker who left the Welsh camp in July with a back injury. His defeat and the rather sudden retirements of Jones and Justin Tipuric in May, just hours apart, have seen Wales lose more than 350 caps.
However, there is reason for optimism. An improvement in the 2019 season that would mean a place in the final is all but unimaginable, but Wales are in the soft half of the most one-sided draw in World Cup history, leaving another semi-final just about within the realm of possibility.
There is life after AWJ et al. It’s just that Wales have relied on their golden generation for so long that any new talent looks all the greener when deployed without them. Gatland is so taken with his young co-captains that he tells them so. Whether he will start both in any given game remains to be seen, but as promising young players they are far from alone.
Some would have expected Dafydd Jenkins, who is all 20 and has seven caps, to wear the captain’s armband if it were for the next generation, but young Lock is likely to succeed Jones sooner rather than later. Then there’s Christ Tshiunza, Rio Dyer and Mason Grady to name just a few other talented kids.
Add in the remaining veterans — Dan Biggar, Taulupe Faletau, Liam Williams, George North, Leigh Halfpenny — and when viewed sideways in a certain light, one can wonder why all the gloom. But there is no doubt that there is a somber mood. If Wales wants to enjoy this World Cup, they need to rise above it.