By Alex Bywater
Martyn Williams is certain that Wales’ summer tour has rubber stamped Warren Gatland’s claim his team are genuine contenders for next year’s World Cup and puts them ahead of both England and
The legendary flanker, who won 100 caps for his country, points to Wales’ embarrassment of back row riches – which he explains as down to a faster game in the PRO14 compared to the Aviva Premiership – as evidence of a stronger squad which head coach Gatland simply hasn’t had at his disposal in major tournaments gone by.
“It is realistic for Wales to win the World Cup. Right now, I think the only team Wales couldn’t beat would be New Zealand,” Williams told The Rugby Paper in Buenos Aires. “When Warren said he thought Wales could win the World Cup nearly a year ago, I initially thought it was quite bold. But now I can understand it. As we sit here right now, Wales have to be up there.”
Back-to-back Six Nations champions Ireland, who sealed a Grand Slam in 2018, have been setting the standard in the Northern Hemisphere, but Williams believes they still have problems to solve. It’s the same with England, he argues.
“This summer’s tour was a free shot for Wales with the new guys coming in and it’s come up trumps,” he said. “If you compare that to England you can forget 2019 for them for the moment, they’re under serious pressure now. They have to win.
“I know Ireland have done brilliantly in the Six Nations, but there are question marks over them. They have no World Cup pedigree, do they? I think Ireland rely on individual players more than Wales do. If you take Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton out, they’re a different side.
“Even without their best players in Argentina, Wales have seen others step up. That’s what they have over Ireland.”
Gatland has discovered a plethora of additional options in Wales’ match with South Africa in Washington and the two Tests against Argentina. No better is that shown than in the back row department.
Ellis Jenkins and James Davies have stood up and both delivered man-of-the-match displays, adding to the wealth of resources kicking their heels back at home.
Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler will all be back in contention for next season. There is Thomas Young and Dan Lydiate too.
Williams knows a thing or two about what it takes to fill the No.7 jersey and explained: “If there had been this much competition when I was playing I wouldn’t have got one cap, let alone 100!
“It’s ridiculous at the moment. Ireland have had some very good sevens too and then you look at England and France who have maybe struggled a bit and not really produced players there.
“They’ve produced different sorts of sevens and it’s down to the leagues they play in. The Aviva and TOP14 are very attritional, so you need a big, almost six-and-a-half type flanker. They don’t like an out-and-out seven. The PRO14 is a lot quicker which I think helps. The game has gone away from the seven role, but in the PRO14 you need it and that’s been of benefit to Wales.
“It’s just an anomaly they’ve got so many to pick from. Now the game is a lot quicker an old fashioned seven is coming a lot more back into fashion.”
Wales knocked hosts England out of the 2015 World Cup at the pool stages, but saw injuries strike and a patched-up squad were knocked out by South Africa in the quarter-finals.
Gatland’s squad for Japan will still likely consist of his household names, but the key thing is the head coach can now have full confidence in the men providing back-up.
Elliot Dee, Dillon Lewis, Adam Beard and Tomos Williams have all impressed as younger players this summer and will push hard for selection next season.
“This is the strongest squad Wales have ever had. We’ve never had this much strength in depth,” Williams said.
“Whenever Wales have left players out before, we’ve struggled. Now we have at least two or three players competing for each position.
“The current situation is one we’ve never had. If everybody is fit now, there are probably only a few definite starters: Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe, and for me, Hadleigh Parkes. There is Jonathan Davies of course, but we’ve also got Scott Williams at 13 and Sam is currently injured.
“This is what I mean when I say we’re at a junction where we have both different options and different ways of playing. That’s hugely exciting for Wales, the fans, and for Warren.
“Two years ago it was the same players all the time, but now all of a sudden we’ve gone through a transition and every player has put their hand up and showed they’re ready for international rugby.
“It’s looking brilliant at the moment. We’re very good in Wales at saying the glass is half empty. I’m looking at it the other way round. The glass isn’t half empty, it’s very much half full.”
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