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Williams column: Warm-ups essential to get Wales up to speed

Wales

WALES are one of the best teams on the planet and that is the attitude Warren Gatland’s side need to take into their four warm-up games ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

Matches home and away with England and Ireland will be tough. They will be uncompromising. They are also necessary as it’s vitally important Wales don’t go to Japan under-cooked.

I’m sure that won’t happen. Going into these four matches Wales need to have a bit of a strut and a stride about them. It’s not arrogance. It’s not cockiness. It’s vital to have belief in your ability.

Wales have had that in their current 14-match unbeaten run and the message to other teams needs to be that we are a very tough outfit to beat.

I’ve read a lot of criticism of the fact Wales are playing too many matches and too many against top quality opposition. Four games is a lot and the reality is there will be injuries – either niggles or serious problems – but Wales are by no means on their own in how they are approaching their World Cup preparations. The big three southern hemisphere sides are all going at it against each other in the Rugby Championship at the moment. They will then play further warm-up games too.

New Zealand and South Africa are both trying new players and new combinations and we’ve seen that in the games they’ve played so far.

England and Ireland will be in the same boat. If everyone is doing it, then Wales can’t be going too far wrong in my opinion.

Of course it is a huge, huge blow to lose Taulupe Faletau to an injury in training which means he won’t be going to Japan. I’m gutted for him. To break your shoulder in a freak incident just shows how unlucky Taulupe has been in the last year. He’s had absolutely no rub of the green at all.

Warren will be praying there are no more serious injuries in the warm-ups. Ross Moriarty – who has stepped in so well for Taulupe at No.8 in the last year – is now an even more vital figure.

If anything were to happen to him Wales would be in trouble as there is no other specialist No 8. Josh Navidi can do a job in that position, but it wouldn’t be ideal for him to start big matches there.

There is a long, long time between the Six Nations and the World Cup and the thing that people criticising the number of warm-up games don’t understand is the difference between fitness in training and match fitness. You only really understand that when you’ve played the game.

We all know how fit the Wales team is. We’ve seen it during the Six Nations. We’ve seen Warren and the Wales coaches putting the players through hell on their Switzerland training camp.

Wales’ fitness drills are all done with a rugby element, but you can lift as many weights or run as many shuttles as you like – it’s still not quite like playing a game. Warren will know that which is why he’ll have signed off the four matches. 

I went to three World Cups in my career and was unfortunate to have a couple of niggles going into two of those tournaments. For me the warm-up games we played in 2003 and 2007 were vital.

They gave me a chance to get up to speed and helped us work on a game plan. Unfortunately it didn’t do us much good when those tournaments came around, but that’s not the point!

In 2011 – when we reached the semi-finals – we spent a lot of time training in Poland. It was brutal and the end result was I’d never felt so fit. I was ready to go for the games, but even though I was in great shape, I remember I was still blowing very hard after 20 minutes of our first warm-up match. That was against England at Twickenham. I did manage to bag a try once I’d got used to the pace and we lost that game narrowly, but that’s what I mean when I say there is nothing quite like playing a match. Wales and England meet again at Twickenham on Sunday and I can’t wait.

It’s the first Wales game since the Six Nations Grand Slam and whatever happens in the next month, it’s vital Wales try new things, get a look at players who haven’t played for a long time, and give the new caps a chance.

Wales
Cooling off: Wales are preparing for the heat of Japan. Getty Images/ David Rogers

Without warm-up games how is Warren going to know what Owen Lane and Rhys Carre can do? How will he know if Aaron Shingler and Cory Hill are ready for the rigours of a World Cup after such a long period of time out of action?

That brings me to who will play in the first game against England. I expect a strong team to be selected. You don’t go to Twickenham underprepared or with a weak side.

When that happens the result is what happened in 2007 when Wales got thrashed at HQ.

I’m looking forward to seeing Wales in action and I’d like to see a slight bit of experimentation. Owen is one player I would like to see involved. I still speak to a lot of the Wales coaches and players in the current set-up on a regular basis and they have told me Owen has been looking very good in training in both Cardiff and Switzerland.

Why not give him a chance to show what he can do in a game?

Wing is a position where you can throw in new players without disrupting the team too much. We’ve seen that in the last 12 months with men like Luke Morgan given a chance.

Owen will be chomping at the bit to get involved. Maybe Rhys could be in the frame for a bench spot too. Wales will want to win every game they play – that’s only natural – but I don’t think their winning run will be too much of a talking point.

The streak stands at 14 matches at the moment and if Wales won all four games this summer they would match the 18-game winning run of New Zealand and England.

To equal that record would be great, but it’s not that important. It would be very easy for Wales to go to England on Sunday and lose. 

Will their World Cup chances be ruined if it does? Absolutely not.

Of course at the same time there is nothing like winning to breed confidence going into a major tournament. The one thing Wales have in their favour over England is they have so many players who are hungry to make the squad and the starting line-up.

You could pick England’s starting line-up and 23 now whereas Wales have competition all over the park. 

Wales have so much strength in depth right now and that’s why these warm-up games are so important. Players like Dillon Lewis, Hallam Amos, Aaron Wainwright will be desperate to impress. There are many others too. It should make for a fascinating month or so.

There is no attitude or ego to these Wales players. They are busting a gut to be a success in Japan and the coaches know they are on the verge of something special.

The next eight weeks or so could well define Welsh rugby for years to come.

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