On-field action starts as Wales prepare for ‘warm-up’ matches

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Wales’ preparations for the Rugby World Cup finally make it onto the field next weekend, as Warren Gatland’s men travel to Twickenham to take on England in the first of back-to-back games against our old rivals.

There then follows a week off with a warm weather training camp in Turkey taking place before back-to-back games against Ireland, between which the 31-man squad that will travel to Japan will be named.

There’s plenty of different aspects to keep an eye on over the next few weeks, and more will be thrown up as players pick up injuries and players either show good or poor form, as debates over who makes it to the World Cup will undoubtedly start to heat up.

There are certain positions where places on the plane are up for grabs, namely the second row and the back row, especially with last week’s injury to Taulupe Faletau. The likes of Jake Ball, Bradley Davies, Aaron Shingler and Aaron Wainwright all have points to prove in that respect.

In the backs, form may well dictate who is named in the squad, with question marks over the exact make-up of the contingent. Will three fly-halves go, or will an extra utility back three player be selected? Eyes on the likes of Rhys Patchell, Owen Watkin, Scott Williams, Jonah Holmes and Hallam Amos here.

Then a bit further up the chain there is competition for matchday 23s, with battles between Nicky Smith and Rob Evans at loosehead, Cory Hill and Adam Beard at lock, and all three scrum-halves named in the training squad who all have a chance of wearing nine in Japan.

Finally, there’s the question of the almost mandatory bolter. Specifically, can Owen Lane impress enough over the next five weeks to earn a spot in the squad.

However, while watching individual and team fitness and performance will be important over the next month or so, the school of thought that results take on a lesser importance in these games is, in my view, mistaken.

Looking towards the Southern Hemisphere, who have been lucky enough to have the high-quality Rugby Championship to provide competitive rugby just a few weeks before the World Cup, New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen has openly admitted he is treating the tournament as a warm-up.

For me, it is not surprising that consequently the All Blacks have not performed as well as they undoubtedly can, and as a result the New Zealand media have jumped on their backs, ramping up the already huge pressure on the team.

Back to Wales and we are currently on a record breaking run of 14 straight test victories, dating back to March 2018, something which has given huge confidence to the squad, absolutely no question.

Maintaining that winning run through having a competitive edge in these games, which should be seen as pre-World Cup test matches rather than ‘warm-ups’, will only serve the team well as they travel to Japan.

It’ll be a challenge as Gatland will no doubt want to look at all 42 members of his training squad in the three games before he names his final 31-man selection, but the quality in the squad means that there is little chance of any ‘under-strength’ team being put out. Any XV should be capable of winning.

Then it’s down to Gatland to avoid making early mass substitutions that disrupt the flow of the game and add to the ‘warm-up’ feel of the occasion, as well as the players to get their attitude right and competing to win the test match.

After just over two long months without rugby it’s exciting to see players out on the field again though, and anticipation is almost at fever pitch as the World Cup gets ever closer.

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