Wales have endured the week of hell ahead of their World Cup opener against Georgia – now at last to start a campaign they hope ends in heaven on Monday night here.
The ‘purgatory’ period – as Alun Wyn Jones called it – between Rob Howley being sent home in disgrace for alleged betting offences on Monday, and Stephen Jones arriving to take over the attack job on Tuesday has been tough.
And typically, Wales have had longer to stew on those dramatic events than most with their opening match not until Monday night in Toyota.
Warren Gatland and Wales have endured a week from hell ahead of their World Cup opener
Warren Gatland has seen most things during his three previous World Cups, but never his right-hand man on a plane home before the tournament has even begun.
When put in front of the Press to explain Howley’s departure on Wednesday he looked bereft. By Saturday, he was bullish.
‘I am looking forward to it,’ he said.
‘There was a little bit of edge and niggle at training; to me that’s always a good sign, the players know the game is coming close.
Attack coach Rob Howley was sent home this week over alleged betting offences
‘We are chomping at the bit. We can’t wait for Monday night to come along. That niggle at training was good.
‘I said the players after training “we’ve had our warm-up games – we’re in competition phase now, and that’s when we thrive”.
‘We are Grand Slam champions, had 14 in a row unbeaten and that was because of the way we prepared, mentally how tough we were, our game management, and I thought today there was that edge.
‘Hopefully we will go and deliver a performance on Monday.’ Gatland would have been livid that his meticulous preparation for this World Cup had been rocked by the Howley news.
The Wales squad are working hard and have drawn a line in the sand over the Howley saga
Wales have been wanting to arrive in 2019 with a team ready to shock the world for eight years
Arriving in 2019 with a team ready to shock the world has not just been a plan for the last four years, but the last eight.
So to see an implosion now, in his last chance at this with Wales after 11 long years at the helm, would be heart-breaking.
He has picked the oldest team Wales have ever fielded in a World Cup match – the XV has 735 caps too – so this is an experienced, wise-headed group who now must deliver.
Alun Wyn Jones plays in his 129th Test to equal the national record set by Gethin Jenkins. Centres Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies start together for the 11th time in the last two years. No centre pairing in international rugby has started more often in that time.
Hooker Ken Owens starts a World Cup match for the first time, but has 67 caps, Justin Tipuric is at flanker for the 67th time, fly-half Dan Biggar is playing for the 74th time, George North the 87th, Liam Williams the 59th.
The only relative rookie is Aaron Wainwright – the 21-year-old flanker who has 12 caps – preferred above Ross Moriarty at flanker.
Gatland has selected the oldest Wales team that’s ever been fielded in a World Cup match
No more development, no more growth, this is it for this Welsh team. And Gatland knows it.
‘When you get to that sort of stage it’s not a mistake,’ he said of having the most experienced ever Welsh team at a World Cup.
‘When you’re thinking about cycles – and for us it was a couple – in terms of getting players through to a World Cup where you think you can compete and have the right age profile and experience with some quality young players coming through – we think we’re in a pretty good place.
‘We’ve got some X-factor and some firepower to come off the bench. We know that when we prepare well and train well and everything is right we’re a tough team to beat and can beat anyone. We’re a relatively small nation and have punched above our weight.
‘We’ve worked incredibly hard to get to where we are and achieve what we’ve achieved in the last few years and we need to make sure we go out and give our best at this World Cup.
‘We want to make sure the people at home in Wales are proud of watching us perform and see we are giving our best.’ Wales will win tomorrow. The Georgians are strong up front, improving behind, but do not have the big-match experience to last the distance.
Stephen Jones has come in as Howley’s replacement and is getting up to speed
There’s plenty of experience in the Wales team as they look to get off to a heavenly start
So the match in Toyota – where the weather could be wild with another typhoon sweeping in – could start as a slog.
‘We have to be smart in the way we play and if we do end up scoring a try or two the consideration then will be how we approach the last 20 minutes,’ said Gatland.
‘We’ve had that chat, but the most important thing is winning the game and assessing how we go from there.
‘If we get a kick in the first few minutes we’ll take that rather than scrummaging in front of the posts.
‘We’re particularly mindful that some of the smaller teams in the competition might tire later on in the competition and will be battle worn.
‘That might be the time to talk about bonus points, but I think the first few games will be tough and the smaller teams will come out firing. We’ve already seen that.
‘It might take – particularly in the first up games where there is a lot of emotion involved from both teams – 50 or 60 minutes to wear a team down.’ Wales cannot and will not be worn by the week that was – and if they are it will be more than just Howley going home too soon.’