Wales head coach Warren Gatland (standing, right). REUTERS/Rebecca Naden/File Photo
Wales head coach Warren Gatland (standing, right). REUTERS/Rebecca Naden/File Photo

Kitakyushu, Japan — Wales did not fully express themselves in their pre-World Cup matches and are looking for a strong start in their bid to win the Webb Ellis trophy for the first time, coach Warren Gatland says.  

Despite winning the Grand Slam earlier in 2019, Gatland’s side come into the tournament ranked fifth in the world and after heavy defeats to England and Ireland during World Cup warm-up matches.

Gatland said the team were experimenting in those matches and that their true strategy will come to the fore when they begin their campaign against Georgia on September 23.

“We haven’t shown a lot in the games we have played and we have kept things under our belt,” Gatland said at the team’s pre-World Cup training camp in Kitakyushu. “We have played differently as well but now the focus is really on competition rugby.

“We feel that it is important to get off to a good start. There is a confidence and self-belief in the squad that if we play to our potential then we can go a long way in this competition.”

Wales face the strong-scrummaging Georgians in Toyota City before a mouth-watering pool D clash with Australia in Tokyo six days later.

“I think everyone gets a little apprehensive and then they get excited and can’t wait for the first game to kickoff,” said Gatland. “We are all just sitting here waiting at the moment, training. So, I think everyone just can’t wait until we actually get started.”

This isn’t the first time Wales have come into a tournament with high hopes but they haven’t always lived up to expectations, failing to make it out of the pool stages three times and never reaching the final.

For captain Alun Wyn Jones, this will be a fourth World Cup and the 33-year-old is keen to use the experience of painful previous exits, most recently at the quarterfinals stage to SA four years ago, as motivation to finally get over the line.

“Preparation isn’t the three months before, preparation is previous World Cups and obviously what goes between that,” said Wyn Jones, who was named player of the tournament at the Six Nations earlier in 2019.

“So the preparation and the relationship with the competition has been ongoing for more than the last three months and even the last four years. We find ourselves here now with the opportunity to put that right with the confidence and self-belief we have garnered from the last two, maybe three years of real concerted preparation.”

The Wales players will be buoyed by the welcome they have received in the southern Japanese port city of Kitakyushu that they will call home for the next week. For the past few years, the Welsh Rugby Union has been establishing a relationship with the city, running training camps for children and coaches.

In return, Kitakyushu has been decked out in red, with signs supporting Wales all over the city as locals try to make up for the disappointment of not being designated a World Cup host city. The local fire engines and buses have been wrapped in red with the three feathers logo painted on the side, while the local Kokura Castle is lit up red every evening.

“I think it is absolutely fantastic and they have embraced Wales in terms of a team and a culture and even the dragon as well, in terms of having that on the local fire engines and around the city,” said Gatland.

Fiji and Uruguay are the other teams drawn in a challenging pool D. 

Reuters