After the sheer heartbreaking manner in which Wales fell in the semi finals in 2011, Warren Gatland and the survivors of that squad in New Zealand, will be desperate to make it up to all in red on their home shores.
Wales were praised in 2011 for the outstanding fitness among the ranks, and standout performers like Leigh Halfpenny, Sam Warburton, George North and Taulupe Faleteau, all four years more mature, will form the core of the squad this year. There is reason for Welsh followers to be reasonably, but not deliriously, confident.
Critics of the Welsh game have paid particular focus upon Wales’ preparation for the World Cup, with coaches paying more attention to fitness than ball play, an issue raised after the 35-21 defeat to Ireland three weeks ago. They are renowned for the ferocity of their preparations in fitness leading up to the big tournaments, but this shouldn’t dislodge the fact that Wales can still move the ball with the best of them. One cannot ignore the beautiful five man move that culminated in Justin Tipuric crashing over last week. Furthermoree, Wales are a team still in experimentation in the friendlies they are undergoing. Players such as Hallan Amos and Eli Walker made appearances in that game, and whilst they represent the future challengers to the first team squad, ultimately they are still learning.
After the announcement of the first trimmings of the squad, there was some surprise of the disinclusion of hooker Richard Hibbard. The affectionately nicknamed ‘Thor’ is a high profile name to be left behind, along with fly half James Hook and scrum half Mike Phillips. But to look at Hibbard’s performances of late, one can understand why. The continuous flirtation with danger at the line outs raises more eyebrows than the applause raised at his aggression and speed in the rucks. His eagerness to move the ball out wide cam bring a loss of possession at sometimes pivotal, often frequent moments. In short – Gatland’s decision to leave him out was ultimately the correct call.
The same can’t be said for Mike Phillips. Although finally and fairly dislodged from a position he has called his own for the last seven years, the experience the 32 year old has accrued over those years should be something that Gatland may end up missing. He brings a steadiness to the team, a powerful scrum half who’s charging can carry him some decent yards, whereas Rhys Webb shows his speed out of the rucks in runs and passes. As much as Gareth Davies and Lloyd Williams are able deputies to Webb, the fact it had taken this long for anyone to displace Phillips on the pitch surely proved his worth to the squad and despite being 32, it goes without question he still had the ability to perform at this World Cup.
With the final squad announcement inbound, the squad seems to be predictable, barring any dramatic calls from Gatland that may shape how critics evaluate his performance at the tournaments conclusion.