By Lawrence White
LONDON (Reuters) – Wales cemented their position as genuine World Cup contenders last month when they beat England to top the World Rugby rankings for the first time, capping an impressive run this year that also included a Six Nations Grand Slam.
Few predicted that result ahead of the tournament, but then Wales have made a habit of defying expectations, perhaps most memorably at the last World Cup when they came from behind to break English hearts in a 28-25 thriller at Twickenham.
With a game built around one of rugby’s most relentless defences, Wales look to strangle opposition attacks and score enough points to win through penalty kicks and strike runners like George North and Liam Williams.
Led by the New Zealand-born Warren Gatland, widely regarded as one of the sharpest coaches in the business, Wales make the most of one of the top tier’s smaller player pools and have built strength in depth in most positions.
Wales have become tactically adept under Gatland, able to nullify most opposition’s gameplans as England found to their cost in Cardiff in February when the hosts snuffed out Eddie Jones’s team’s shiny new kicking game and hit back in style.
British and Irish Lions fullback Williams was instrumental in that win, offering the blend of defensive solidity and counter-attacking guile that exemplifies his side’s rope-a-dope style.
Even shorn of dynamic Taulupe Faletau, who misses the tournament through injury, Wales are especially rich in the back row where the likes of Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty, Josh Navidi and Aaron Wainwright offer tough tackling and breakdown craft.
An injury to flyhalf Gareth Anscombe, however, has left them reliant on veteran Dan Biggar in the pivotal position with the inexperienced Rhys Patchell and Jarrod Evans as back-up.
Beyond that problem Wales can also find themselves short of firepower against top-tier opponents that match their physicality in defence, a weakness exacerbated by the switch from the attack-minded Anscombe to the battling Biggar.
To top Pool D Wales will likely need to beat Australia on Sept. 29, a feat they accomplished last November to end a barren run of 13 straight defeats by the Wallabies.
Beyond Australia only livewire Fiji are likely to offer serious opposition in their pool, giving Wales every opportunity of reaching the knockout stages and improving on their best-ever third place finish at the inaugural World Cup.
In captain Alun Wyn Jones Wales have one of the game’s most effective players, a tireless warrior in the second row engine room capable of inspiring his close-knit side with an all-court game of tackling, carrying and lineout jumping.
Fans can convincingly argue Wales have the best captain and the best coach at the tournament, and under their leadership they will believe they can finally win the World Cup – even if it means taking down an All Blacks side they have not beaten since 1953.
(Reporting by Lawrence White, editing by Ed Osmond)