Three weeks ago, Wales went to the top of the World Rankings for the first time in their history. Now, just days away from the start of the World Cup, the Welsh Dragon looks vulnerable and unlikely to make the semis, let alone the World Cup Final. This boils down to their lack of imagination with ball in hand, their unfortunate injuries in the flyhalf birth, and falling into the trap of peaking too early.
Wales pretty much sneaked their way to a 14-match winning streak between 2018 and 2019, which started with a 38-14 victory over Italy, and included two victories over South Africa and Argentina. Within their unbeaten run, they posted big scores over Italy and a massive score over Tonga, but were pushed to their limit against France and Australia. Regardless of the margins that they won by, it became clear that in their 14 games, Wales seemed to have forgotten how to lose. This unbeaten run was ruined in August 2019, in their first World Cup warm-up match in Twickenham by England. Not only did England shatter the Welsh streak, they seem to have ruined the idea that Wales can win a World Cup.
Despite earning a gritty 13-6 victory over England to get their revenge a week later, Wales have not looked like the undefeated side that was incapable of losing during their Grand Slam Six Nations win earlier in 2019. In their final warm-up matches ahead of the World Cup, they were outmatched by and outsmarted by Ireland, both in Cardiff and Dublin. In both of those matches, like their loss in Twickenham, the fifty-fifty calls went against them, and their defense has seemed less organised and more sluggish. The Welsh were still able to absorb pressure, but eventually they gave up points and penalties against both England and Ireland, which they were not able to make up.
Wales have shown glimpses of their former selves in their warm-up matches, particularly in broken play when the likes of Liam Williams and Dan Biggar can pounce on loose ball. However, they seem to have the opposite problem of Ireland and England, in that they only seem to look strong when there is little structure.
Another issue facing Warren Gatland’s chargers is that of injury; a spectre that followed them throughout the 2015 World Cup as well. Wales have suffered two flyhalf injuries ahead of the World Cup already, with Gareth Anscombe being ruled out completely, and Rhys Patchell going out with a Head Injury Assessment in their most recent loss to Ireland. It is as yet unclear if his fourth concussion in 12 months will keep Patchell out of the World Cup altogether, but it is unlikely that he will be able to play for much of the tournament.
While it would be unwise to count out a team that have enjoyed a 14-match winning streak a year before the World Cup, it is unlikely that Wales will do much to get passed the quarter-finals in Japan. Their injury struggles seem all too familiar, and it looks as if Wales will have to be content with going World No. 1 for a week in 2019.