Wales boss Warren Gatland says he is “miles away” from considering the composition of his 33-player World Cup squad.
Gatland’s players completed an underwhelming Guinness Six Nations campaign with a 41-28 defeat against France in Paris – their fourth loss during this season’s tournament.
And while a battling second-half display when tries from Bradley Roberts, Tomos Williams and Rio Dyer that underpinned a bonus-point return deserves recognition, there can be no masking acute overall disappointment.
🏉 SGÔR TERFYNOL
🇫🇷 41-28 🏴#WelshRugby | #GuinnessSixNations pic.twitter.com/l4GcGo1osQ
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏴 (@WelshRugbyUnion) March 18, 2023
Gatland, though, is upbeat about Wales’ World Cup prospects and preparation period, given increased access to players building towards the competition, intensive summer training camps and warm-up games against England (twice) and South Africa.
Players who have been sidelined through injury like forwards Will Rowlands, Dewi Lake and possibly Josh Navidi will come into the selection mix, and Gatland believes that time is on his side.
“You don’t pigeon-hole yourself into making those decisions now,” he said. “It is important that everyone gets an opportunity.
“There are players coming back from injury, and there will no doubt be some bolters who put up their hand with the way they potentially train in the camps, when there will be some live scenario stuff.
“You go in with an open mind and not wanting to make those decisions too early. I am miles away from thinking what a 33 is going to be at the moment.”
Gatland’s World Cup record during his first stint as Wales head coach featured semi-final appearances in 2011 and 2019.
And while a testing pool in September and October includes appointments with Eddie Jones-coached Australia and Fiji – only two teams will make the quarter-finals – Gatland has impressive history in rugby union’s global spectacular.
Assessing his return to the Wales post, which only began in December, he added: “I think it was a very short preparation time in terms of meeting with the players – a lot of new players – and trying to find out where we were as a squad.
The final standings.#GuinnessSixNations pic.twitter.com/6CVRv49oje
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 18, 2023
“We realised from the start there was a reasonable amount of work to do in a lot of areas.
“We tried to prioritise some of those and focus on some of those. We are disappointed because there are games there (in the Six Nations) that we will be good enough to win, but we are not there yet.”
Wales have won only four of their last 17 Tests, while at least one change to Gatland’s backroom team is expected as World Cup planning now moves up a gear.
4 - Wales lost a @SixNationsRugby match after scoring four tries for the first time ever - they have now lost each of their last four final round fixtures in the Championship, as many times as in their previous 16 campaigns combined. Hoodoo. pic.twitter.com/9xMejcT7PB
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) March 18, 2023
“I am confident with the work we will do during the next few months leading to the World Cup that this group of players will get a lot better,” Gatland said.
“I was pleased with our performance (against France) because it was a game that could have got away from us significantly, but the boys dug in and I thought the impact from the bench was excellent.
“I said to the players in the changing room afterwards that I was proud of them. I thought they showed some real character in that game, and we as a group have been pretty honest.
“We will surprise some teams in the World Cup by how good we will be and how much we will improve having that time together to prepare.
“We have taken steps in the right direction during this campaign, but we have a lot of work to do.
“We have developed some youngsters who will learn from these experiences, and we will review stuff and what are the things we need to keep working on to not allow some of those soft tries we did concede.”