Grand Slam champions with tried and tested combinations, world number one, defensively solid – all this was true, but Wales are not yet World Cup winners elect, as the defeat to England proved. If the last few years in rugby has taught us anything, it’s that good sides can have exceptional runs, but that those runs always come to an end.
Whether it is England, Ireland or the All Blacks, all three teams have been heralded as the world’s best in the last two years, all three saw their bubbles punctured.
For England, last year’s Six Nations and tour of South Africa was disastrous, for Ireland, this year’s Six Nations began with massive expectations and ended in deflation. Likewise, the All Blacks are no longer seen as invincible, with Beaudan Barrett reduced to the role of an excellent player rather than a rugby demigod.
And so, we have Wales, who begun their match against England on the back of a record breaking winning streak, only to be rocked early on by a much derided England featuring a string of untried combinations and a debutant as vice-captain.
An England that overpowered them throughout, made them look weak and exposed holes. Eddie Jones’ side have a habit of throwing away leads, defeats to South Africa and the All Blacks last year, along with the extraordinary draw with Scotland, spring to mind, but they punched holes in an uncharacteristically frail Welsh defence in the first half.
Of course, the narrative of an overrated Wales and an underrated England is simplistic and incorrect. Wales remain a good team, a real threat for the World Cup, and England were always a good team (Willi Heinz is an excellent player) and they are still unreliable and inconsistent, as well as perhaps a little one dimensional.
What the match yesterday, and the Rugby Championship too, proved once again, is that this is the most open World Cup in years, maybe since 1995. England, Ireland, Wales, South Africa and New Zealand have all put together performances in the last year or so that resembled that of a World Cup winning side, and with Australia rediscovering some form of nowhere, who will triumph in the end is anyone’s guess.
Personally, I think South Africa are the pick of the bunch, they seem the most settled, are in the best form and have some excellent individuals, but anyone of the top tier nations is capable of beating them on their day.
Ultimately, it is impossible to predict the outcome, but that is exciting, and a welcome change. New Zealand have been by far the best for too long, and this current confusion in the rugby landscape is brilliant; healthy competition should make for a brilliant tournament.
A long winning streak does not a World Cup winner make, but neither does defeat to England reduce Wales to overrated also rans. In the end, journalists will take whoever wins the World Cup and spin a narrative in which the current period of nervous preparation is transformed into a tale of irrepressible progress towards their destiny as champions. In the same vein, we will all convince ourselves that of course, they were always going to triumph.
In reality though, the World Cup is nobody’s to lose, and remains Wales’ to win (but also England’s, Ireland’s, South Africa’s, Australia’s, New Zealand’s, Argentina’s and Scotland’s). It is an unbelievably open tournament, that is what the weekend’s action has proved to us, and that is excellent news.
Written by Joe Ronan