Founders Column – Alex Cuthbert

It’s Tough When A Dream Fades . . . Mine Was To Return To Wales, Get My Shirt Back, And Go To Another World Cup 

When I decided to come back to Wales from Exeter three years ago, I had one major goal in mind – to play at another World Cup. 

That dream kept me going through some tough times in 2023, but it slowly started to fade in the days leading up to the squad announcement in August. 

I knew I was struggling after injuries last season, but just when I needed to make up for lost time, I suffered another torn calf muscle. 

That was it. Game Over. Race run and I hadn’t even reached the start line in France. 

You get used to injuries as you get older and view them as part of the life of a professional sportsman, but it still feels devastating when they rob you of your dreams. 

I played in five games at the 2015 tournament, and I look back upon that time as a real career highlight – up there with winning Grand Slams and playing for the British and Irish Lions. 

There’s nothing like being in the middle of a World Cup. It’s more intense than a Six Nations, the matches are tightly compressed, and you are living, breathing, and sensing every moment. 

Everything is heightened – the nerves, the tension, the bonds with your teammates. It’s a fully immersed, emotional experience. 

Getting picked in a Wales World Cup squad is no mean feat, even if you never play a game. 

The competition for places is harsh, the endurance you have to withstand, just brutal. 

In 2015, I probably took it all a bit for granted. I was 25, it was a home tournament, with our games in England and Wales, and it didn’t maybe feel so much of an exotic adventure as it might have done overseas. 

This tournament in France will feel different. The squad will be bouncing from location to location, meeting different people, playing hard matches in front of packed crowds and I think it will have more of that awesome rugby adventure feel to it, the type I really loved when I experienced it with the Lions in Australia in 2013. 

When you play in these really big matches, you can underestimate just how many people around the world are watching. 

You get good luck messages from people you haven’t heard from in years.  

It’s a real buzz, and for me, now, being a father, it feels even more special and more of a privilege. 

These are the games you want to play in: packed stadia, backs against the wall, a deafening noise, and then the thrill of scoring or winning. It’s euphoria. 

It’s been a hard road for every player who has earned a seat on that plane for France. 

I think sometimes fans don’t realise, or they under-estimate, the gap between club rugby and the international game. 

Some people think, ‘well, this guy has done well for his club, let’s chuck him in for Wales and he’ll be brilliant.’ 

It’s rarely like that. The mental side of it is more demanding along with the physical side.  

You have to make snap decisions and if you get them wrong, you don’t often get away with it. 

So, although there are a lot of very young, promising players in this Wales squad, it’s going to be interesting to see whether Warren Gatland goes with youth and potential on match day, or with people with a bit more experience, who he trusts. 

Some boys have a lot of credit in the bank when it comes to having delivered before. Others represent more of a risk. 

These are the big calls coaches have to make. 

For me, that first game against Fiji is probably the most important game for Wales at this whole World Cup. It’s going to be very physical and attritional, but it will set the whole tone and momentum for the campaign. 

The only guarantee I can make is that many more than the 33 players originally selected will end up playing some role at this World Cup. 

Look out for Mason Grady because I think he could have a big impact. 

He is big, physical, and he has serious speed. He also has an abundance of other skills. 

I think power and strength will be a factor at this tournament. You only have to look at the hosts and favourites, France, to realise that. 

Ireland are right up there in the betting, but we have seen sometimes that when they come under the pump, they can sometimes be physically, out-matched. 

We saw that with Leinster in the Champions Cup final when they came up against La Rochelle. In the second half of that game, they were bullied. 

It’s a bit of a work on for Wales, too.  Up against big, powerful teams we have probably been short of heavy ball-carriers in our back row. 

But we have gone a slightly different route and we now have very dynamic ball-carriers, like Jac Morgan and Aaron Wainwright, who can ensure the half-backs have more time to use our back line. 

So, how will Wales do? 

Well, it’s hard to make predictions. But here’s one. 

I think we will see a big improvement from what we saw at the Six Nations. 

There was so much else going on behind the scenes that I think it was a tournament the players need to just to park and move away from. 

Two factors were at play. Too many players didn’t know what was happening with their contracts, which was a big distraction. 

And maybe the fitness levels were not quite where they might have been. 

The contracts now look clearer for most and the fitness levels have been upped by Warren Gatland. 

It’s looking promising.