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)
England lock Joe Launchbury has been given a clean bill of health after alarm was raised over a back injury sustained during Friday’s World Cup send-off.
Italy were thumped 37-0 at St James’ Park but Launchbury’s first-half exit took the shine off the third victory of the summer’s four warm-up Tests.
Forwards coach Steve Borthwick insists the Wasps captain will be ready for the World Cup opener against Tonga on September 22.
“Joe Launchbury came off with a back injury but there’s nothing concerning there. Joe will recover from the flight and will be good to go,” Borthwick said.
Mako Vunipola (hamstring) and Jack Nowell (ankle) are on schedule to play in the key pool games against Argentina and France, while Henry Slade (knee) could face Tonga.
England’s first full day at their training camp in Miyazaki was partially taken up by a community visit to a local high school, where a brass band played ‘We Will Rock You’ by Queen as the players sat on stage.
Hundreds of children watched as fly-half George Ford exchanged passes with the captain of the school team, before gifts were exchanged and Borthwick gave a short speech in Japanese.
“I said it’s great to be here in Japan and we’ll do our very best at the World Cup. I thanked them for their support,” Borthwick said.
“The players are enjoying it. It’s a great training camp here in Miyazaki. I know that from my previous experience coaching with Japan at the last World Cup.
“You couldn’t have asked for better facilities and the players have enjoyed how we’ve started.
“The first period of time will be spent recovering from the journey because there’s the jet-lag factor.
“Then we’ll have another push in terms of our fitness. We’ll focus on our conditioning for the next couple of games. We’ll move into game prep at the appropriate time.
“There are a few days here that give us a really good opportunity to do some work.”
England’s arrival into Tokyo on Monday was hit by a five-hour delay leaving the airport due to the fallout from Typhoon Faxai, which had battered the Japanese capital the previous night.
“There was a bit of disruption, but people were very good around the airport. They gave us access to the lounge because they knew we’d been held up,” Borthwick said.
“We stayed on the plane for a period of time and then went into the lounge. There was also a little delay outside at the airport so the boys started an impromptu game of cricket.”
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Rory Best has admitted he will jet out to Japan buoyed by the “endorsement” of his captaincy from Saturday’s raucous standing ovation at the Aviva Stadium.
Best signed off in Dublin in style by helping steer Ireland to number one in the world rankings with a 19-10 victory over Wales in his final Test match on home soil.
The 37-year-old will hang up his boots after the World Cup, and he and departing head coach Joe Schmidt were afforded heroes’ acclaim at Saturday’s final whistle.
Best considered resigning the captaincy after public criticism for attending the rape trial of Ulster and Ireland team-mates Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding in early 2018.
Jackson and Olding were acquitted of all charges but sacked by Ulster, while Best and Ireland produced a Six Nations Grand Slam triumph in what proved a stunning 2018 on the field.
The evergreen hooker’s stewardship came under fire again after Ireland’s record 57-15 loss to England at Twickenham in last month’s World Cup warm-up clash.
After mixing turbulence with glory in three years as skipper, Best conceded that rapturous reception on Saturday has added another spring to his step.
“Whenever you play the sport and you have the highs alongside the lows, you do know what a great reaction or reception is like,” Best told the PA news agency.
“And you always want to try to leave or walk out on your own terms.
“A lot of good friends of mine I played with at the top level never got the opportunity to walk off the pitch at home under their own terms and get that kind of reception.
“I’ve been able to do that now with Ulster at the Kingspan against Connacht, and now with Ireland at the Aviva.
“In the last year or so it’s become quite important to me that I make sure I go out at the top and go out with people remembering me as a quality player and person and not somebody that hung on a year or two too long.
“That is the kind of gamble you run when you get a little bit older. So I’m very happy for that to have come off the way it did.
“That reception, ultimately, that’s as good an endorsement of what you’ve done over a number of years as anything.”
Best assumed the captaincy in 2016 after Paul O’Connell’s injury-enforced retirement.
The farmer’s son from Banbridge has steered Ireland to their maiden two wins over New Zealand to sit alongside the 2018 Grand Slam, and now that first-ever status as the world’s number one ranked Test team.
Ireland will now bid to move past the quarter-finals for the first time at a World Cup, with Best insisting leadership pushes him to new heights – both on and off the pitch.
“There have been some very, very tricky times along the way, but the way I’ve responded to that, I’d like to think that says a lot about me as a person not just as a rugby player.
“In my time as captain I would like to think the greatest emphasis has been on the team, and that has been important to me right from the start.
“It’s about making sure that the people around you can feel comfortable enough to produce their Best.
“It’s also something I like doing, and I feel it brings the Best out of me, captaining the side.
“Once we fly out we’ll finally be able to focus solely on Scotland.
“It was important we got a few things together in the last couple of games. But we’re still nowhere near where we feel we need to be.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but it’s nice getting on the plane with a bit of confidence back.
“Part of that is improved performances but another part of that is we know how much more we still have.”
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