World Cup most important in Wales’ rugby history – Mike Phillips
Mike Phillips has urged Wales to inspire the fans at what he considers the most important World Cup in the nation’s rugby history.
The Welsh game has spent 2023 in crisis off the field due to a sexism and misogyny scandal at the Welsh Rugby Union and in dire straits on it, with Warren Gatland struggling to transform the team’s fortunes during his second spell in charge.
Wales, World Cup semi-finalists in Japan four years ago, have fallen to ninth in the global rankings, with supporters expecting Gatland’s side to make a major impact at the tournament in France next month very much in the minority.
“It’s more important this time,” former scrum-half Phillips said of Wales’ forthcoming World Cup campaign.
“The public needs it. It seems that it has just been a constant negative about Welsh rugby over the last 18 months. The public needs some inspiration.
“We all want to support success, just as with the football team reaching the World Cup.
“The Welsh people want to be inspired and there’s nothing like the national team to galvanise the game, all the way down to the grassroots.
“It would be nice to have people excited about what’s happening on the pitch.”
Wales play two warm-up games against England – the first in Cardiff on Saturday – and another at home to South Africa before embarking on their World Cup adventure.
British and Irish Lions trio Alun Wyn Jones – Test rugby’s most capped player – Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb have all left the international scene in recent months and there will be several new faces in France.
“There’s no pressure on these players but my only concern is that they’re not winning often, either for club or country,” said Phillips, who won 94 caps for Wales and another five for the Lions.
“Winning in sport is tough, it doesn’t just happen. Sometimes you need to grind it out. A few years ago that’s what they were doing.
“Gatland will have them fit but the game has moved on from when he was first in charge. There’s far more kicking now so the tactics need to be spot on, strong defence and discipline is key because games turn on a moment.
“You can’t keep picking the same guys forever. Ideally you would have a core group with 30 or 40 caps but we seem to have players either with lots or none.”
Phillips starred as Wales reached the last four of the 2011 World Cup, losing agonisingly 9-8 to France after skipper Sam Warburton had been sent off in the opening quarter.
He said: “The youngsters have to learn to become leaders, that’s how they will grow. Perhaps it’s good to throw them in the deep end.
“It feels similar to 2011 when Wales brought in a load of new young players like George North, Jonathan Davies, Rhys Priestland, Taulupe Faletau and Sam Warburton.
“They came back from the World Cup experience and won a Grand Slam, another title, and all went with the Lions in 2013.
“We may not know a lot about these lads now but they can be household names by the time they return.”
Wales meet Fiji – who famously knocked them out the last time the World Cup was held in France 16 years ago – in a crunch Bordeaux opener on September 10 before further group games against Portugal, Australia and Georgia.
England or Argentina are potential quarter-final opponents.
“Fiji is a monumental game,” said Phillips. “Getting that first win gives you momentum and takes a bit of pressure off.
“But Fiji are very physical and athletically they are absolute monsters. They are strong and powerful and seem to have a more tactical game now with their driving maul.
“Their scrum is pretty solid, they play in that Super competition (Super Rugby Pacific franchise Fijian Drua provided 19 of the most recent national squad), and they are going to be tough to break down.”
Mike Phillips was speaking at S4C’s 2023 Rugby World Cup launch.
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