The trumpet is out and Wales’ 42-man training squad has been heralded from the rooftops for three million selectors to pore over.
Warren Gatland has always liked to do things early. He often names his teams days in advance, laying down the red gauntlet to all-comers and he has reason to be bullish. His side are No2 in the world, he’s on a 14-game winning run and, less tub-thumpingly, the regions’ virtually invisible showing at the business end of the season means he can have access to his players in good time.
Wales will get to work knowing they are underrated. Glance at the bookies odds and they trail New Zealand, England and Ireland, but you sense Gatland is unconcerned. He will have a plan. When it comes to picking squads for rugby’s showpiece, he’s shown he’s not one for sentiment. In 2011, talisman Martyn Williams was deemed surplus to requirements. In 2015 it was Mike Phillips, James Hook and Adam Jones and for 2019, Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate have seemingly been denied a final hurrah.
Gatland knows that to stand still is folly and, after a summer’s toil, 42 will be whittled down to 31 without remorse.
Hark back to Gatland’s first World Cup squad and it was genuinely exciting. Ken Owens, Lydiate, Taulupe Faletau, Rhys Priestland, Sam Warburton, Scott Williams, George North and Leigh Halfpenny had just 70 caps between them. The 2019 Grand Slam champions have a more experienced, gnarled look with only Josh Adams and Aaron Wainwright fresh-faced additions to a well-oiled machine.
For Wales to continue improving, they know they need to evolve, so it was reassuring to see uncapped Owen Lane and Rhys Carre added. Both would add dynamism in Japan.
Wales as a side are easy to respect, but difficult to love. To neutrals, they play a shrewd, muscular, almost cynical brand of rugby that wins games but not friends and, with just 10 tries in the Six Nations, calls that they need more of a cutting edge if their vaunted defence has an off-day have credence. In truth, they haven’t possessed an x-factor player since Shane Williams retired in 2011.
For that reason, there is scepticism that Wales, who have never reached a World Cup final, can make inroads. England’s defensive rock, Mike Tindall, was breezily dismissive of Wales’ chances recently and he’s not alone. In New Zealand you’ll find few cheerleaders for Gatland’s men, unsurprising given Wales haven’t beaten the All Blacks in 66 years. Compare that to Ireland who have done it twice in the past three years, and you’ll see why there’s a lack of fear.
Being written off will suit Gatland. Being strong favourites doesn’t fit Wales’ underdog psyche, and there’s some doubt whether it suits Ireland, given their alarming drop in form in the Six Nations, but one thing’s for sure, in 141 days Wales will pack down against Georgia, and we’ll have an inkling if they are six games from immortality or ignominy.
Gatland’s final days will be compelling.