Tuesday 15 October 2019

Grand Slam winners fancy their chances in spite of outsiders' tag

Rob Howley: ‘Our game has developed a lot’. Photo: Getty
Rob Howley: ‘Our game has developed a lot’. Photo: Getty

Paul Rees

Wales and the World Cup have not always been the easiest of fits. None of the teams from the old Five Nations has failed to make the knock-out stages more often than the men in red but they have arrived in Japan quietly confident, a contrast to days of yore when they talked better than they performed.

Remember 1995, when, in a fit of hubris, they declared themselves to be bigger, faster and stronger than New Zealand - only to be mown down 34-9 by the All Blacks at Ellis Park?

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"What we have shown in the last 12 years is that we have a head coach who knows how to win games," says Rob Howley, who moulds the side's attacking game. He was, of course, referring to Warren Gatland, who is in his final weeks in charge of a Wales side who were in the trough of a slump when he took over at the end of 2007 but now expect rather than pray.

Wales are not ranked among the leading contenders for the World Cup, despite winning the Six Nations (and grand slam) six months ago and breaking their old record of 11 consecutive victories by three. Their tournament record under Gatland is a semi-final in 2011, when they lost by a point to France despite playing the last hour with 14 men, and a quarter-final four years ago when, having negotiated a pool that included Australia and the hosts England, they fell to a late try by Fourie du Preez having led for most of the second half against South Africa.

It was the last gasp of 'Warrenball', a term that irks Gatland because it is considered pejorative, but it was essentially a compliment. Wales were renowned for their flakiness and combustibility but under the New Zealander they developed an innate hardness, using size as a weapon at a point in the game when only New Zealand saw reward in risk.

It was a strategy that succeeded in Europe, but what Wales have to break is their appalling record against the major southern hemisphere countries in the World Cup. That amounts to a single victory, over 14-man Australia in the 1987 play-off for third place, and 10 defeats.

Wales should have topped their pool at the last finals but failed to score a try against Australia even when their opponents were reduced to 13 men, and while they disputed the legality of South Africa's winning try, the defeat was down more to the chances they squandered: they were far more comfortable taking contact than operating in space.

The 2015 tournament was a watershed. By the time they toured New Zealand the following summer - when they pushed the All Blacks hard in the first two Tests before collapsing in the third - they had charted a new course and met with the four regional coaching teams to impress the need for tight-five forwards to be comfortable handling, passing and running and for outside backs to play with their heads up.

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"Our game has developed a lot since 2015," says Howley, who is also standing down after the World Cup. "We have worked on the finer skills, like handling and decision-making and aspects like offloading have been a work-on.

"New Zealand set the standard, but the gap between the north and the south has in the last three years closed to the point where this tournament promises to be the most open for 16 years. Any of the top eight has a chance.

"We are in a position to make an impact. The majority of the squad were involved in the 14-match winning run which took in a series win in Argentina and a grand slam in the autumn and in the Six Nations. This team knows how to win and we get better the longer we are together."

Wales did lose three of their four warm-up matches but there was a sense during the second half in Dublin last weekend, when Ireland barely let go of the ball, that minds had turned to Japan.

"The matches were about finding out the players," says Howley, "and the selection of the World Cup squad made for a tough and, for me, uncomfortable few hours. Leaving out players who have given so much was cruel. In our previous two World Cups, most of the players were pencilled in before the warm-ups, but this time we had a real choice."

It was Howley, rather than Gatland, who attracted the flak on social media at the height of Warrenball when Wales won matches but not hearts, having divorced from the romanticism of the past.

"We have thoughtful and knowledgeable supporters," he says. "Wales is a goldfish bowl and I knew what I was taking on 12 years ago when I thought long and hard about taking the plunge. I had only been coaching for three years: I was 38 and could have been sacked with a long time ahead of me.

"Gats has created an environment of honesty, integrity and hard work and there has been consistency in selection. We all have a bad coaching or playing performance, but you do not make decisions on the back of a poor game.

"That policy has allowed us to see three teams come through: the 2008 era, 2011 onwards and the last three years. We make sure we get to know players. I love being an attack coach, the challenge now is to be different and come up with the unexpected."

Howley has not revealed his plans after the World Cup. "When I was on holiday last year a friend texted me because it was reported I had applied for the Harlequins job.

"I replied that it was wrong and that I expected the next 18 months with Wales were going to be exciting and that we would do well in the World Cup. It is my sole focus. The future can wait."

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