It speaks volumes about the strength of Wales’ back row options going into the Rugby World Cup that – and whisper this quietly – Taulupe Faletau’s absence may not be all that severe.
Don’t be alarmed. This is meant in no way to diminish the talent, importance or standing of Wales’ premier forward. It is merely a pointer to the prowess of the back row positions in the Welsh squad.
There’s been much debate about the sensibility of the world’s biggest teams playing ferocious and full-blooded warm-up games ahead of rugby’s greatest spectacle.
We’ve already seen the perils of Wales packing down against England with first-choice fly-half Gareth Anscombe lost for the tournament following a knee injury suffered in the Dragons’ opening warm-up at Twickenham.
While Anscombe is a significant loss for Wales and coach Warren Gatland, they at least have a more than able deputy in Dan Biggar – who the New Zealand-born Anscombe had displaced as first choice 10.
But the biggest blow to Wales’ quest for a maiden Webb Ellis Cup – they would become only the second northern hemisphere side to lift it – happened a few weeks earlier with the loss of their nonpareil Number 8.
A broken collarbone as Faletau neared a return from a broken arm that ruled him out of the Six Nations at the beginning of the year has made for a thoroughly wretched 2019 for the Tonga-born totem.
In previous World Cups, the loss of such a talismanic figure may well have sounded the death knell on Wales’ tournament hopes before even boarding the plane. But this is not the brittle Welsh teams of old. This is not the old school pack of rotund, immobile Welsh forwards. And this is most certainly not your run of the mill back row department.
Such is the Dragons’ depth, there is a legitimate claim they embarked for Japan with the most talented set of loose forwards ever selected for a World Cup – and that’s devoid of injured phenom Faletau.
Justin Tipuric can consider himself one of the unluckiest rugby players in the last two decades of Welsh rugby. The Trebanos terror has been a terrier-like presence throughout the last eight years. A bulldozing ball carrier who possesses David Pocock-esque presence at the breakdown, he could easily have earned far more than the 66 caps he owns. That he hasn’t has been as much down to bad timing as anything else.
The 30-year-old had the misfortune of emerging when stalwarts and coaches’ favourites like Ryan Jones and Sam Warburton – Wales’ two longest-serving captains – were at their peak. He was also up against Dan Lydiate’s unique tackling style and relentless workrate.
Josh Navidi is a physical mismatch and tackling demon – not surprising considering his Iranian father Hedy was a talented wrestler who dreamed of appearing at the Olympics, but settled for placing fifth at the British Open and coaching the Welsh national team after moving to Bangor as a teenager.
Like Tipuric, Navidi is another beast at the breakdown and a player finally cementing his place in the Welsh team after years of injury heartache and misfortune.
There’s Ross Moriarty, who has become a mainstay of Gatland’s back row make-up in the last 18 months. Having been a late call-up to the 2015 World Cup squad when Eli Walker went down injured, Moriarty, then 21, has converted his two caps into 34 and would have assumed he’d be wearing the No8 shirt against Georgia. He is a descendant of Welsh rugby royalty, son of former Wales league and union international Paul and nephew of another, Richard.
Moriarty, a more fiery and forthright character, is reported to have approached Gatland in an inquisitive, positive manner as to why he wasn’t starting. Such is his confidence and stature gained in four years.
Wales are so stacked at the back of the pack, that Moriarty – who has perhaps profited most from Faletau’s recent misfortune – doesn’t make the starting XV due to the form of promising Aaron Wainwright.
Perhaps Gatland is hoping to have feisty Moriarty fired up for whenever he does enter the fray, or simply keeping a key player fresh for Australia. Maybe it’s just down to 21-year-old Wainwright’s jaw-droppingly quick ascension.
Wainwright is a converted winger who only took up rugby seriously in his late teens when his footballing dreams with Cardiff City and Newport County died. He only made his senior debut for his club Dragons in 2017. A year later he was coming off the bench for the Dragons in red against Argentina, having not even previously played for the U20s.
Then there are James Davies and Aaron Shingler, more than solid bench options. Who knows how many more caps Davies, 28, would have (he has five) were it not for a litany of injuries.
Wales got to the semi-finals eight years ago where they lost by a point to France, with a back row contingent of Faletau, Warburton and Lydiate, as well as Jones and Andy Powell.
Wales were, briefly, ranked number one in the world a few weeks ago and had amassed a 14-game unbeaten run. A massive reason for that is the strength of their backbone, the flankers and No8s. And they got there without Faletau.
With the back row class of 2019, as well as a supremely talented squad, Wales should have a chance to emulate a best-ever World Cup finish of third, achieved at the inaugural competition, in 1987.
Even without their standard bearer, let’s see how tall they can stand.
Ireland delivered on their promise to hit form when it mattered most by stunning Scotland 27-3 with a bonus-point blitz to launch their Japanese Rugby World Cup quest in style.
James Ryan, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Conway all crossed in Yokohama as Ireland made good on all their pre-tournament pledges.
Ireland’s muscle-bound victory hands Joe Schmidt’s men a fine chance to top Pool A and book a likely quarter-final battle with South Africa, following the Springboks’ loss to New Zealand.
Ireland entered the tournament as the world’s top-ranked team for the first time in history, but were also dogged by the spectre of their record 57-15 defeat by England at Twickenham just last month.
Head coach Schmidt’s tournament plans had been heavily scrutinised, Rory Best’s captaincy questioned, and Ireland were left to lament a second frustrating loss to England in the calendar year.
All boss Schmidt’s plans came to fruition on the shores of Tokyo Bay however, with skipper Best leading from the front with a timeless, tub-thumping, try-scoring turn.
Ireland will move on to face hosts Japan in Shizuoka on Saturday feeling fully vindicated in their preparations, boasting a spring in their step and a zip in their play.
Schmidt’s men entered this clash missing backline stalwarts Rob Kearney and Keith Earls through injury, but their understudies Jordan Larmour and Conway excelled in a hugely-comprehensive Ireland performance.
Scotland’s wretched afternoon was worsened all the more by a nasty-looking knee injury to Hamish Watson, that could well end his tournament.
Watson’s left knee buckled amid a robust but legal double ruck cleanout from Cian Healy and Furlong, with the Edinburgh flanker immediately letting out a blood-curdling scream clearly audible on the referee mic feed.
Scotland face Samoa in Kobe on Monday, and it would seem highly likely they will do so without the accomplished but luckless Watson.
Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Bundee Aki did not return after Head Injury Assessments (HIAs) and Josh Van Der Flier was forced out late on, with all three now doubts to face Japan.
Johnny Sexton handed goal-kicking duties to Conor Murray, perhaps hampered by a minor leg niggle. Ireland withdrew their premier playmaker right after the fourth try, clearly protecting the British & Irish Lions star for later in the tournament.
Ireland blasted into the Scots from the very first second, attacking in relentless waves and denying Gregor Townsend’s men any foothold.
A smartly-angled lineout drive allowed Best to break blind and Murray to chip in behind. Iain Henderson ploughed right over Stuart McInally to bust a midfield cavern and set camp on the Scotland tryline.
Two tight phases later, and Ryan burrowed home to hand Schmidt’s men the dream start.
Garry Ringrose then scythed down Stuart Hogg in midfield, Aki latched on for the turnover and Ireland were back on the attack.
WP Nel was pinged for side entry from the resulting penalty lineout and Sexton punted to the corner for another fine platform. And Ireland’s flawless lineout catch-and-drive flattened the Scots, with skipper Best rising last from the pile for his 11th Test try.
Greig Laidlaw finally put Scotland on the board on the quarter-hour with a penalty goal, but Townsend’s men were never able to settle.
Tommy Seymour knocked on in midfield, Conway fly-hacked deep and the loose ball rebounded off the post. Hogg scooped up but was duly hauled back over his line by Conway, handing Ireland a five-metre scrum.
CJ Stander powered off the set-piece to put Ireland in touching distance again, and Furlong busted in for the third try – all inside the half-hour.
Murray slotted the conversion to post a lead of 19-3 that Ireland took into the break, their scrum-half shanking a penalty shot on the stroke of half-time.
No fourth score before the turnaround, but Ireland still had time for Stander to race past an unguarded Scotland ruck, and for Jacob Stockdale to chip and chase 40 yards down an unguarded blindside off a scrum.
A neat steal in Ireland’s 22 secured Scotland a fine scoring chance after the break, only for John Barclay to knock on cheaply.
That mistake allowed Ireland to regain the momentum, with Conway the chief beneficiary when racing in at the right corner for a smart finish.
Four tries and the bonus point inside the hour, and boss Schmidt had seen enough: Sexton was withdrawn, with his replacement Jack Carty posting a late penalty in a comfortable cameo.
Scotland slumped to a disheartening 27-3 defeat against Ireland as the Dark Blues began their Rugby World Cup under a dark cloud.
Despite having designs on the Webb Ellis Cup, and at least targeting a first-ever trip to the semi-finals, while their opponents are just concentrating on getting out of the group, Ireland were expected to be severely tested by their fellow home nation.
But it was a one-sided affair from the start as Ireland’s ferocious forwards dominated the first half, while staunch defence kept Scotland under control as they improved after the break.
James Ryan, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong barged over for first-half scores, with Andrew Conway crossing for a bonus point try in a second half that marked by a downpour. For the Scots, a sole Greig Laidlaw penalty was a paltry return from a game expected to be much more of a contest.
Here is how we rated the Scotland players:
Allan Dell 7: Also part of the front row that tried to stem Ireland’s flow, making 12 tackles.
Stuart McInally 7: Captain led from front, or tried to. Embarked on 12 runs, only Hogg made more, and tackled like a demon (10). Looked visibly dejected.
Willem Nel 7: Ferocious on the back foot as he made 16 tackles – not missing one. No-one came close.
Grant Gilchrist 3: Two missed tackles and conceded a turnover, not a good day at the office.
Jonny Gray 6: Tackling machine, making 11/11, and the go-to man in the lineout. Beat a man but fell foul of impressive Irish pack.
John Barclay 4: Dropped the ball as Scotland had finally made inroads into Ireland and were camped in the shadow of their posts. Edinburgh No8 has had better games.
Hamish Watson 5: Lost to a serious leg injury. Appeared in tears as he was wheeled off for what looks likely his first and last involvement at the World Cup.
Ryan Wilson 3: Dropped a high punt as conditions worsened. It got worse for Wilson as Ireland scored from it. Three handling errors in total. Woeful.
Greig Laidlaw 4: Visibly frustrated as he tried to cajole his team-mates. Booted side’s only points. Made significantly more passes (64) than anyone else, but offered little.
Finn Russell 5: Did well to deliver pass to Maitland – that led to penalty – before being obliterated by Aki. Tried his best to spark a suffocated Scotland attack, came to life and showed flashes of brilliance in second half.
Sean Maitland 7: Always looked one of the players most likely to deliver. Good driving run to start second half. Made second most metres (49), but missed two of three tackles.
Sam Johnson 5: Try-saving tackle on Stockdale in first half, otherwise it would have been game over after 30 minutes. Frustrated going forward.
Duncan Taylor 7: Difficult to judge as he made errors but showed more heart than anyone else. Excellent rip at ruck showed he was up for the fight. Always looked to carry, let down once by a knock on, one of three turnovers. Ten tackles.
Tommy Seymour 4: Anonymous, despite making third most metres (25) via three runs and beating one defender. Overawed.
Stuart Hogg 7: Had pace to beat Conway easily, won a turnover to alleviate pressure. Always darting around trying to spark the Scots, no other player on the field made more runs (16).
Fraser Brown 6: Where was he for Conway’s try? Left blindside open as winger strolled over.
Darcy Graham 6: Livewire was thrown on to inject some life into his side, but it was too late.
Blade Thomson 6: New Zealand-born utility man got going with five carries and weighed in with seven tackles, missing none.
Simon Berghan 6: Two turnovers conceded in his 28 minutes on the pitch.