2019 has been on the minds of the Rugby fraternity for a long time, for some maybe even 4 years. As we head towards Japan there seem to be more teams promising to have a successful tournament than ever before. The level of competition promised in the Autumn is in no small part down to the strength of the Six Nations, with four teams occupying the top five in the World. One of those teams, Wales, head into the New Year having won their last nine fixtures, with just two defeats away to England and Ireland blemishes on their 2018 record. This coupled with a first ever Autumn whitewash has propelled them to a well deserved third in the World rankings along with a new-found confidence and squad depth. What does 2019 have in store for them?
Warren Gatland took charge of his first Six Nations campaign promising to take Wales from an up and down team to a consistent performer. Eleven years later, there is no doubt that he has succeeded (in European terms at least), chalking up three championships including two Grand Slams and two Triple Crowns and several second places to boot. It wouldn’t be a great surprise to see those numbers increase in March. Wales and Gatland will know if they can get past a tricky opener in Paris, a favourable fixture list will set them on the road to a potential Championship decider against Ireland in Cardiff on Super Saturday. Saying that, the quality on show in this years Championship is such that anyone could beat anyone on any day, but facing England at home is a big advantage and they often perform well at Murrayfield (last time out the exception). Whatever the shape of the table in March, there is now a confidence and belief in the Wales camp which means that any eventuality wouldn’t derail the bigger ambition. Surely Wales with their balance of experience and youthful exuberance are on the upward curve that they hope won’t plateau until early November.
It’s rare in the modern era for an International Head Coach to take charge for multiple World Cup cycles – heading into his third, Warren Gatland certainly knows what it will take to succeed in the land of the rising sun. The Kiwi has been able to get an extra level out of his charges at the global showpiece; the extended preparation period really allows the team to click, as shown by a 14-man exit at the semi final stage in 2011 and a heroic quarter final appearance despite being ravaged by injury last time out. There is nothing to suggest that Wales won’t turn up as equally prepared this time and with more experience and strength-in-depth than ever before, this may actually be their best chance. Gatland has already indicated that his side occupy the more favourable half of the draw, a likely quarter final would pit them against one of England, France or Argentina – meaning a semi-final at the very least is a distinct possibility. Surely a minimum expectation for a team ranked 3rd in the World? This is perhaps why many experts are naming the men in red as their dark horses for the tournament. Wales’ final game in Japan will also be Gatland’s last and he along with the players will desperately want one of the nations greatest eras to end with the ultimate peak.
Written By – James Jones