Rugby World Cup: Warren Gatland's confidence to be put to test in Japan

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Warren Gatland on Wales' defeat against Ireland

Three defeats in four warm-up matches, down from first to fifth in the world rankings and a lack of momentum going into the Rugby World Cup in Japan later this month.

However, if Warren Gatland is worried about Wales' World Cup preparations, he wasn't showing it in Dublin after the second loss to Ireland in less than a week.

"The competition starts now". That was the defiant message confidently delivered from the Wales head coach as he reflected on a 19-10 defeat against Joe Schmidt's side.

Wales fly to Japan on Wednesday and face Georgia in their opening match 12 days later with the Australia, Fiji and Uruguay Tests to follow.

The build-up has been long and arduous with a few bumps along the way. Problems have arisen and some questions remain unanswered.

But Wales' World Cup journey now accelerates as Gatland looks to bow out in style as Wales boss.

Summer days

Wales arrived in August for the summer programme of matches as Grand Slam champions, on a 14-match winning sequence and ranked second in the world.

What has followed is a hat-trick of losses, two against Ireland and an England defeat at Twickenham.

A contrasting solitary victory against Eddie Jones' men at the Principality Stadium resulted in a two-week period where Wales were ranked as the world's best side with some fans basking in the short-lived glory.

That double defeat against Ireland in the space of seven days leaves Wales lying in fifth. They are behind South Africa, England, New Zealand and Ireland, who top the rankings for the first time going into a World Cup.

Gatland has consistently said rankings do not matter until the ones published after the World Cup final in Yokohama on 2 November. He has adopted the same mantra for Wales' recent losses.

The three times Grand Slam winner and unbeaten British and Irish Lions series head coach is backing his pedigree of preparing sides to peak when it matters.

Wales players reflect on defeat against Ireland in Dublin
Wales players reflect on defeat against Ireland in Dublin

"There is no concern at all really," said Gatland.

"That's what these games are all about. We tried some things, different combinations and players.

"Now the competition starts and that's when we'll step up and be good at that. There's probably a little bit of guys making sure they got on the plane too.

"You hold a little bit back and you work on a few things,

"That's important. These are warm-up games under our belts, not a Six Nations match where it matters about winning."

Matters of concern

There should be concern about the manner in which Ireland overpowered Wales in the second half in Dublin, overturning a 10-7 interval deficit with 12 unanswered points.

Captain Alun Wyn Jones recognised the mistakes made against Ireland, while Gatland says it provided a blueprint for how to play against Wales.

What cannot be disputed is the character within the squad and their defiant defence, which laid the foundations of the record 14-match unbeaten run.

Question marks remain though over Wales' power game with a lack of penetrating ball carriers in their ranks, resulting at times in a lateral attacking approach.

The ability to carve opposition teams open needs to be addressed with only seven tries in four matches over the last month.

And how will Wales cope if they lose key men like Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies and Dan Biggar? And will Gatland rue his decision to omit Grand Slam winning prop Rob Evans from his 31-man squad?

Influence of Injuries

Gareth Anscombe being helped off at Twickenham
Gareth Anscombe being helped off at Twickenham in August 2019

Wales will at least arrive in Japan with most of their leading lights on board.

In 2015, Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny were ruled out after picking up injuries in the final World Cup warm-up match against Italy, while centre Jonathan Davies was already a long-term absentee.

The unlucky players in this campaign were British and Irish Lions number eight Taulupe Faletau and fly-half Gareth Anscombe and the pair are significant losses.

Faletau's collarbone injury was picked up in training, while Anscombe suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in the opening defeat against England in Twickenham.

Further issues remain about Dragons captain Cory Hill and Rhys Patchell. Lock Hill has a fractured leg and is battling to be fit for the second game against Australia.

Fly-half Patchell will need to overcome a head injury after he was forced off against Ireland with another concussion, his third of the season.

Wales World Cup fixtures - Pool D
Mon, 23 Sept: Wales v Georgia, City of Toyota Stadium, Toyota City (11:15 BST)
Sun, 29 Sept: Wales v Australia, Toyota Stadium, Tokyo (08:45 BST)
Wed, 9 Oct: Wales v Fiji, Oita Stadium, Oita (10:45 BST)
Sun, 13 Oct: Wales v Uruguay, Kumamoto Prefectural Athletic Stadium, Kumamoto City (09:15 BST)

Battle hardened

Having as many as four warm-up matches was a source of constant debate, but Wales' top players have come through some bruising battles ahead of the attritional World Cup schedule.

The main men had to play and will have benefitted from the experiences of Twickenham, Cardiff and Dublin in recent weeks. Even if they have suffered defeats.

New players have emerged with Dragons back-rower Aaron Wainwright proving the most impressive performer in the warm-up campaign.

The gruelling fitness camps in Turkey and Switzerland could pay dividends with Wales being programmed to reach peak condition in Japan, not in August or September against England and Ireland.

That is what Gatland bases his confidence on and what he will ultimately be judged upon.

So he is right in one sense. The World Cup competition starts now. The warm-up war is over.

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