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Warren Gatland is looking to sign off in style by leading Wales to their first World Cup triumph
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So, ‘The Best Team in the World’ are going to the World Cup as 10/1 outsiders with plenty of bookmakers.  

It’s not often a No 1 ranked team – as Wales were briefly last month – are so unfancied by those who hoard the dosh. 

But that’s where we are with Wales who have found themselves in a curious position; well prepared, full of energy, momentum, talent, a consistent run of form, possibly the best squad they’ve ever had, with the best coach they’ve ever had… but in the awkward position of having blinked onto the radar they are so desperate to fly under.

So will they shine brightly, or fade in Japan? Are they worthy of your fiver? And how will you spend the winnings if Alun Wyn Jones lifts the Webb Ellis Cup on November 2?

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All that to come and more, as Sportsmail assess Wales’ chances at the Rugby World Cup.

Warren Gatland is looking to sign off in style by leading Wales to their first World Cup triumph

Warren Gatland is looking to sign off in style by leading Wales to their first World Cup triumph

HOW ARE THEY LOOKING?

POOL D FIXTURES 

Georgia, September 23, 11.15am

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Australia, September 29, 8.45am

Fiji, October 9, 10.45am

Uruguay, October 13, 9.15am 

Really, really good. It’s almost worrying how well everything is going for Wales.

OK, so they have lost two major players to injury – and definitely cannot afford to be without many more talisman – after No 8 Taulupe Faletau (broken collarbone in training) and fly-half Gareth Anscombe (cruciate knee ligament injury v England last month) were cruelly ruled out.

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But, other than that, things are decidedly rosy in Warren Gatland’s garden.

Essentially he is a big-game coach. He loves World Cups, and has been planning for this for ages (yes, others have too, but no one does it quite like Gatland).

It was back in 2016 when he decided that the old ways – don’t mention the style of rugby named after him for God’s sake – were not good enough, and expansion of thought and deed was needed.

Wales may have lost a series against the All Blacks 3-0 that year, and were humbled by the Chiefs too, but it was the first step towards expansion of their playing style.

The next stage was to add depth of playing resources. In 2015 a host of horrible injuries – to Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Webb, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams, Cory Allen, Hallam Amos and Scott Williams – left Wales desperately short (despite the fact they beat England with a scrum-half on the wing).

Taulupe Faletau's injury absence is a huge blow for Wales but Ross Moriarty has stepped up
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Taulupe Faletau's injury absence is a huge blow for Wales but Ross Moriarty has stepped up

Taulupe Faletau’s injury absence is a huge blow for Wales but Ross Moriarty has stepped up

KEY PLAYERS 

Alun Wyn Jones 

The captain marvel and soon-to-be record national cap-winner with 130 stashed in his cupboard. Recently voted the ‘best player in the world’, he might not be that, but he is a giant, evergreen legend that defies all logic with his stupendous performances.

Jonathan Davies 

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Defensive captain, double Lion and vice-skipper – the centre has no equal in Welsh red. He goes, and the backline is all over the place. Game-breaking ability matched with a propensity to hardly ever make mistakes, he is vital.

Never again would Gatland allow that to happen – so deepening the player pool has been a considered aim. Flanker Aaron Wainwright, locks Adam Beard and Cory Hill, hooker Elliot Dee, centre Owen Watkin and wing Josh Adams are those who have made a significant impact in recent years.

Lots were blooded while Gatland was away with the Lions in 2017, and have come through superbly.

Wales are a seriously tight unit too. Lots of teams talk about the bond between them, and some of it is false, but with Gatland’s guys you believe it.

In camp they are seen playing Gin Rummy in hotel lobbies, with Liam Williams and Gareth Davies often involved. They have a team choir too – run by Rhys Patchell and Leigh Halfpenny that gathers for a sing-song and a laugh too.

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And during the Six Nations they came through genuine adversity as a group. Before playing Scotland at Murrayfield news emerged that the Ospreys and Scarlets were set to merge. Half the squad worried for their futures, Ken Owens – not only the Scarlets skipper but also the Welsh Rugby Players’ Association top player representative – and Alun Wyn Jones went into diplomacy and leadership mode with the latter having to travel home for crisis talks at his region days before a Test match.

Embattled and angry they won in Scotland, and sealed the Slam the following week. There is no doubt that big bonds were formed then.

An unbeaten run of 14 Tests – a national record – was ended by England at Twickenham in the first warm-up game, but beating them in Cardiff took Wales to No 1 in the world rankings.

Talismanic captain Alun Wyn Jones is set to break Wales' cap record during the World Cup

Talismanic captain Alun Wyn Jones is set to break Wales' cap record during the World Cup

Talismanic captain Alun Wyn Jones is set to break Wales’ cap record during the World Cup

Jonathan Davies is a key figure for Wales at outside centre in both defence and attack
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Jonathan Davies is a key figure for Wales at outside centre in both defence and attack

Jonathan Davies is a key figure for Wales at outside centre in both defence and attack

LIKELY STARTING XV 

L Williams; North, J Davies, Parkes, Adams; Biggar, G Davies; N Smith, Owens, Francis, Beard, AW Jones, Navidi, Tipuric, Moriarty.

They have played down that title hugely, and secretly will hate the hype. It almost feels against the national psyche to be favourites for anything – and Gatland has played on the underdog tag for years expertly.

But in his last World Cup with Wales there is no doubt that the Welsh must deliver.

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They have a first XV with more than 700 caps-worth of experience, a totemic leader in Alun Wyn Jones, fight, dog, spirit and a special coach. Semi-finals are a must, and then who knows?

WHAT WILL STOP THEM?

HEAD COACH 

Warren Gatland

Has taken Wales from No 11 in the world No 1  – albeit briefly – over a 12-year period, taking in four Six Nations wins, including two Grand Slams, a World Cup semi-final and a World Cup quarter-final. Oh, and a won and drawn series as British and Irish Lions head coach.

How he’d love to sign off with World Cup glory before heading back to New Zealand.

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If not New Zealand, who they cannot beat (NB Three victories ever – in 1903, 1935 and 1953) then perhaps a dawning realisation that they could actually win the World Cup come late October could crush them.

It might be that a lack of true attacking flair – despite the steeliest of defences – may hinder them, especially now Anscombe and Faletau are out, but if they do make a semi-final, or a final, it will be fascinating to see how Wales deal with the psychology of it all.

Cardiff is the most emotionally stirring rugby setting on the planet. Wales can’t bring the Principality Stadium’s partisan din to Japan. It will be corporate crowds a long way from the field in Tokyo and Yokohama – there will be no Hymns and Arias, no raucous red-shirted mobs roaring them home.

And when you look at the professional era (since 1995) how many hugely significant away, or neutral-ground victories do Wales have against top sides?

In the 142 Tests they have played away from Cardiff since 1995 they have won 61. I would posit that of those, less than 10 have been genuinely noteworthy – with six of the best listed below:

  • W v England (a) 32-31 1999 (albeit nominally a ‘home’ game) 
  • W v France (a) 24-18 2005 (on the way to a Grand Slam against the champions) 
  • W v England (a) 26-19 2008 (Gatland’s first game, where they trailed by 10 at half-time) 
  • W v Ireland (n) 22-10 2011 (World Cup quarter-final in Wellington) 
  • W v Ireland (a) 23-21 2012 (with a late Leigh Halfpenny penalty on way to a Slam) 
  • W v England (a) 28-25 2015 (to effectively knock England out of their World Cup)
Most of Wales' memorable triumphs have come at the cauldron of the Principality Stadium
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Most of Wales' memorable triumphs have come at the cauldron of the Principality Stadium

Most of Wales’ memorable triumphs have come at the cauldron of the Principality Stadium

Of those wins, there’s not a southern-hemisphere team among them, only two outside the Six Nations, and three England wins (which have their own motivations).

So that’s the history they have to break in Japan. Do it at a World Cup, in the knockout stages, on neutral territory, against top team in form.

If they do, may I suggest using the £60 you’ve won from the bet to buy a single train ticket to Cardiff for the home-coming party and a few pints? It could be the most monumental tear-up in history.

Every fried potato in Christendom served up by Chippy Lane eateries will not be enough to soak up the booze consumed if Wales win the World Cup. 

WALES AT WORLD CUPS 

Depending on who you ask they’ve either punched hugely above their weight, fought in the face of adversity having dished out some bloody noses on the way, or have never quite made the impact their tradition, history and rugby pedigree demands on the biggest stage.

Here’s a brief potted history of their World Cups past.

1987 – Unbeaten pool, shocked England, destroyed by New Zealand, third by beating Australia.

1991 – Embarrassed by Western Samoa, whacked by Wallabies and out in the groups.

1995 – All Black destruction and Ireland defeat makes it back-to-back failures.

1999 – Samoa defeat AGAIN, but reach last eight. Aussie loss by miles in new home.

2003 – Canada, Tonga, Italy beaten. Mad running loss to Kiwis and hope extinguished by England.

2007 – Oh so bad. Rampant Fiji send them out at pool stage again with 38-34 epic.

2011 – Oh so close. Fledglings fly to semis, before Sam Warburton red brutally shoots them down.

2015 – Oh the pain. Literally. Catastrophic injuries curtail progress beyond Boks – but England beaten.