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.
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