Wales v Ireland: Welsh players' final audition for World Cup places

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Wales coach Warren Gatland after Ireland defeat

The Wales bench felt like the waiting room for an audition at the Principality Stadium on Saturday.

Some had already taken their turn, others on the pitch were in the midst of theirs, while some were still sitting on the sidelines waiting for their opportunity.

Ireland were the opponents but, with World Cup squad places at stake, Wales' players also saw their own team-mates as rivals.

A few glances exchanged, the odd nod of recognition, an eagerness to impress. Anticipation. Nerves.

In the role of casting director was Warren Gatland, sitting in the stands with his coaching team, running the rule over the candidates one last time before naming Wales' 31-man World Cup squad on Sunday.

Debutant Owen Lane was given a chastening introduction to Test rugby as he was turned over inside two minutes, but the Cardiff Blues wing responded well with a smartly taken try in the second half.

His regional colleague Jarrod Evans, meanwhile, endured a difficult first Wales start. His replacement in the second half, Rhys Patchell, may now be viewed as the favourite to be Dan Biggar's fly-half understudy in Japan.

Gatland had said beforehand that Evans and Patchell were in a straight shootout for the second 10 spot for the World Cup. Patchell's assured display - rounded off nicely with a try - appeared to settle that debate in his favour.

Rhys Patchell
Rhys Patchell hopes to travel as part of a World Cup squad to Japan, where he made his Wales debut in 2013

"Some people put up their hand. We had a few questions answered," said Gatland.

"It was good from that point of view. A lot of players getting their first start and it was tough for them."

There were answers for Gatland then, but the players were still in the dark.

"What I believe is neither here nor there. I don't make the decision," said Patchell.

"I can only do what I can do. My opinion has no clout - I don't pick the squad."

The most important opinion belonged to Gatland, who was taking charge of his final match in Cardiff as Wales head coach before his 12-year reign comes to an end after the World Cup.

Not that the New Zealander wanted this occasion to be about him. An inscrutable sort who tends to keep his feelings to himself, the 55-year-old was more concerned about the weighty responsibility of not only selecting his final 31 but of breaking the bad news to the nine who will miss out.

He knows how it feels to be left out of a World Cup squad, having suffered that fate with the All Blacks in 1991.

But even as a hardy character who would rather deflect attention towards others, Gatland admitted this last Cardiff match day as Wales coach stirred the emotions.

Owen Lane
Owen Lane marked his senior Wales debut with a try

"I was a bit choked up and lost for words," he said.

"It was emotional. I have loved my time in Wales and even coming off the pitch I was quite emotional thinking it was the last time here and going down Westgate Street and to the stadium.

"I would just like to say a big thank you. This is a special nation with special people and very passionate and kind."

That rare show of emotion did not last long.

Gatland had to rush back to Wales' training base at the Vale of Glamorgan Resort for a meeting with his staff during which they would decide on the final 31-man squad for the World Cup.

What started as an extended training group of 42 players had already been reduced by two tournament-ending injuries to number eight Taulupe Faletau and fly-half Gareth Anscombe.

Now it was time for the final cut.

Gatland had been open about the fact he had already decided on the vast majority of his squad months ago, that only six or seven places remained up for grabs.

That is where the significance of this match against Ireland came into play.

Scott Williams or Owen Watkin? Hallam Amos or Lane? Gatland had plenty of dilemmas going into this game and, despite the defeat, there were plenty of answers too.

"We're disappointed with the result but I'm happy with a lot of what we got out of today," he added.

The remaining decisions will not be snap judgements.

Gatland will have forensically analysed his players over the course of the past 12 weeks, packed with intense training camps and these warm-up fixtures.

This World Cup has been years in the making, and there will be swathes of data - not just Saturday's loss to Ireland - which will influence the last few selection calls.

The players will learn their fate at 14:00 on Sunday afternoon. They have been given four different options: hearing the news via a telephone call, text, email or finding out live.

Gatland says breaking bad news to omitted players is the hardest part of his job.

Once he has navigated that unenviable task, he will turn his attention back to the World Cup - and his mission of ending his Wales tenure on the most spectacular high.

"There is a very special part in my heart for Wales and a nation of 3.3m. We have massively overachieved in the last 12 years or so, and we are not finished yet," said Gatland.

"If we are mentally and physically right and we go out there and we are on our game we can beat any team in the world.

"I honestly believe we will go a long way in this World Cup."

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