Rugby World Cup 2019 profile: Wales – Dragons hoping to breathe fire in Japan

With the Rugby World Cup just one week away, we take a closer look at each of the competing nations. After profiling 18 teams, we continue our series with Wales.
Quietly but effectively going about their business, Warren Gatland’s Wales will be a tour de force come their World Cup opener against Georgia in 11 days time.
The Dragons may have lost three out of their four warm-up games, but in a World Cup year, the only thing that matters is the World Cup itself.
The reality is each team is at different stages of their preparation – nobody wants to peak too early – and Wales had just come off two gruelling training camps in Turkey and Switzerland leading into those warm-up clashes.
Both of which are programmed to have them reaching peak physical and mental condition for Japan.
Gatland, who will sign off after 12 glittering years with Wales after the World Cup, is a big-game coach. He loves World Cups and has been planning for this moment for years.
In 2011, he turned a hapless pool-exiting side from 2007 into one that was a score away from reaching a World Cup final.
And four years later, his side upset the odds to escape a group with both England and Australia, only to lose the quarter-final in the last five minutes against South Africa.
In November, Wales completed a sweep of victories for the first time and went on to achieve a third Grand Slam success under Gatland’s tenure.
A first victory in 14 attempts over Australia was the highlight but Wales will also be pleased with the way they managed wins over South Africa, England and Ireland. An unbeaten run of 14 Tests was ended by England at Twickenham in the first warm-up game last month, but beating them in Cardiff took Wales to the top of the world rankings.
Back-to-back defeats against Ireland may have raised some concern, but what cannot be disputed is the character and resilience within the squad and their iron-like defensive qualities.
Question marks though remain over Wales’ power game with a lack of penetrating ball carriers in their squad, resulting, at times, to employing a lateral attacking approach.
Their overall quality is evident, but their ability to cut opposition teams open needs to be addressed with a meagre seven tries in the last four matches.
The loss of fly-half Gareth Anscombe, flawless from the tee and controlling from open play during the Six Nations, to injury is significant but Dan Biggar will step up in the Ospreys man’s absence.
Up front, Taulupe Faletau is ruled out due to a broken collarbone, and as much as his powerful carrying and fearless tackling is a threat, one of either Josh Navidi or Ross Moriarty will take the number eight shirt and make a telling contribution. In recent seasons, the experienced international pedigree of captain and star man Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies and George North has been added to by some exciting new blood.
Flanker Aaron Wainwright, locks Adam Beard and Cory Hill, hooker Elliot Dee, centre Owen Watkin and wing Josh Adams are just some of the names that have come in and flourished in recent years.
Despite a Grand Slam triumph in March, a lack of depth at fly-half and tight head will always make Welsh fans nervous come competition time.
But the buzz and excitement of a World Cup will have the players primed and firing come the tournament’s big kick-off next week.
Drawn in Pool D with Australia, Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay, the Dragons should emerge as group winners.
And despite Fiji looking to spring a surprise, the match against the Wallabies in Tokyo on September 29 will be the pool-shaping game. However, Gatland’s men should have the edge.
Crucially, if that is the case, they will avoid an in-form England in the quarter-finals and face either France or Argentina.
One would sense they have the superiority and class to match their best-ever finish of reaching a semi-final, and from there, it will be fascinating to see how they deal with it. LIKELY XV: L Williams; North, J Davies, Parkes, Adams; Biggar, G Davies; N Smith, Owens, Francis, Ball, AW Jones, Wainwright, Navidi, Tipuric.
Emblem: Prince of Wales’s feathers
Union: Welsh Rugby Union
Head coach: Warren Gatland
Captain: Alun Wyn Jones
Most caps: Gethin Jenkins (129)
Top scorer: Neil Jenkins (1,049)
Top try scorer: Shane Williams (58)
Home stadium: Millennium Stadium
Best finish: Third (1987), Fourth (2011)
Fixtures: Georgia (September 23), Australia (September 29), Fiji (October 9), Uruguay (October 13)

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