Wales’ Curious Position: Can Warren Gatland Revitalize the National Team for the Rugby World Cup?

As we approach the Rugby World Cup, Wales finds itself in a curious position. After a difficult few years, many have been left questioning the direction of the national team.

But with the return of Warren Gatland, there is renewed hope and optimism for Welsh rugby fans that Wales can make a mark on the world stage once again, despite a difficult Six Nations campaign.

There is a belief that the Kiwi is the man to turn things around, having enjoyed plenty of success in his first reign as Wales’ head coach. He led the country to three Six Nations Grand Slams and a semi-final appearance in the 2011 and 2019 World Cups.

Of course, there are still question marks over the team’s performances. Wales struggled to find their form in the Six Nations, winning just one of their five matches and finishing with a negative points difference.

There are concerns over the team’s attacking play, with Wales failing to score a try in three of their matches, and defensive lapses were also a cause for concern.

But with plenty of time in camp this summer, there is hope that Wales can rediscover the kind of form that saw them reach the semi-finals of the last World Cup.

The return of Gatland has injected a new sense of purpose and direction into the team, and the inclusion of some exciting young talent could provide the spark that Wales needs to mount a serious challenge for the trophy.

There is hope that Wales can reignite the spirit of 2011, which saw the likes of Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies, and Taulupe Faletau emerge onto the scene, helping Wales reach the semi-final of the World Cup, despite a poor Six Nations campaign beforehand.

Players such as Mason Grady, Christ Tshuinza, and Rio Dyer impressed during the Six Nations, gaining valuable test match experience and are now eagerly heading to the World Cup for the first time.

Gatland recently announced his 56-man training squad for the World Cup. The squad features a mix of experienced veterans, such as Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Biggar, and Ken Owens, as well as some exciting young talent, including Sam Costelow, Dafydd Jenkins, and Joe Roberts.

However Wales’ World Cup campaign has been dealt a significant setback as stalwarts Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric have made the surprising decision to retire from international rugby, leaving a notable void in the team’s line-up a mere four months before the tournament.

Jones, the esteemed record holder for the most caps in world rugby, boasting an impressive 170 Tests for Wales and the British and Irish Lions, made his announcement shortly after Tipuric, aged 33, revealed his own retirement, having both been selected originally in Warren Gatland’s 54-man World Cup training squad.

As always in international rugby, nothing can be taken for granted. The tournament is likely to be fiercely competitive, with the likes of Ireland, South Africa, and France all expected to mount strong challenges for the World Cup.

In the world of rugby, few things generate as much debate as national team selections, as seen with Henry Thomas’ surprise inclusion.

The Montpellier prop’s unexpected call-up has sparked intense debate, given Thomas’ previous appearance for England in 2013.

As if the controversy wasn’t enough, the decision to omit promising young centre Joe Hawkins from the squad, due to his upcoming move to the Exeter Chiefs, has added fuel to the fire.

Gatland finds himself caught in a web of eligibility rules and contentious choices and faces constraints imposed by the Professional Rugby Board (PRB), who deemed Hawkins ineligible for selection.

As of February 2023, players plying their trade outside of Wales now require a minimum of 25 caps to don the national jersey, a significant reduction from the previous threshold of 60.

However, Hawkins falls foul of the rule, having picked up just five senior caps to date before his move to Exeter takes effect this summer.

While Wales reluctantly bids farewell to Hawkins, Thomas, at the age of 31, finds himself embarking on a journey in the opposite direction, leaving behind his previous Red Rose caps to pursue his eligibility to play for Wales through his father.

As Wales gears up for the Rugby World Cup, their thorough preparations are set to kick into high gear.

The 56-man squad will begin their preparations at the National Centre of Excellence in Hensol for an intensive training camp, marking the start of their journey towards the Rugby World Cup.

The squad will then travel to Switzerland and Turkey before the stakes rise even higher as Wales faces England on August 5th and 12th, both home and away, followed by a showdown with South Africa at the Principality Stadium on August 19th.

These battles will serve as a litmus test for the final 33-player squad that will don the Welsh colours at the Rugby World Cup 2023 in France.