Wales face a physically gruelling pool in their seventh attempt at World Cup honours, facing current world champions South Africa and unpredictable Pacific nations Fiji and Samoa along with Namibia in Pool D. A team that can rival any on their day, the Welsh arrive in New Zealand officially ranked sixth in IRB world standings and are favourites alongside the champions for a quarter-final spot; however they will have to rectify a miserable record against the two Island nations in their pool if they are to justify this favouritism and progress into the knock-out stages.
A third place finish in the inaugural World Cup remains Wales’ biggest achievement on the world stage, a tournament which saw the Welsh only lose a single game to an All Black team that went on to claim the Cup. A record of two quarter-final spots in the five tournaments that followed is a poor reflection of the strength of Welsh rugby: Wales has a proud Five/Six Nations record of 24 championships including ten Grand Slams – of which the latest two came recently in 2005 and 2008.
Worryingly for the Welsh, however, losses to Island nations have historically been a key catalyst for past poor performances. Wales lost to Samoa in pool play at both the 1991 and 1999 tournaments, although in 1999 they were lucky to still clinch second place. More recently, Wales were beaten by Fiji in a thrilling 34-38 match that once again left the Welsh stranded in third spot. Wales however will back their in-form squad to outperform their predecessors and will be targeting not only a quarter-final appearance but an upset progression deeper into the tournament.
The local knowledge of Kiwi coach Warren Gatland will be invaluable to a Welsh squad that includes a number of outstanding Northern Hemisphere players. The absence of Matthew Rees led Gatland to appoint flanker Sam Warburton the youngest ever Welsh captain at just 22 years old; however Wales otherwise boast a supremely experienced squad. British Lions propping duo Adam Jones and Gareth Jenkins share over 140 caps alone, while former captain Ryan Jones and lock Alan Wyn Jones disperse invaluable experience throughout the pack. An exciting backline performance against Argentina in August will potentially see the mercurial James Hook oust 100-cap veteran Steven Jones from his preferred position at fly-half, while Shane Williams oozes class out wide. Teenage wing George North arrives in New Zealand having scored six tries in his last eight internationals and is tipped by many to outshine his more illustrious colleagues.
Wales kick off their World Cup in Wellington against South Africa on the 14th September before facing Samoa seven days later in a pivotal match in Hamilton. Namibia await in New Plymouth on the 26th before a vital clash on 2nd October against Fiji will finalise standings in Pool D. If Wales break their hoodoo and progress second as expected, a potential clash with Australia beckons in Quarter-final One in which the Welsh will look to become the surprise package of the World Cup.