Wales are no longer under the radar ahead of 2019 World Cup

Wales celebrate after completing a clean sweep of autumn victories
Wales celebrate after completing a clean sweep of autumn victories

Warren Gatland's message over the last few weeks has been that he wants Wales to stay under the radar.

After their most successful autumn, that might seem a forlorn hope now.

An historic first November clean sweep, with victories over Scotland, Australia, Tonga and South Africa, means Wales have consolidated third place in the World Rugby rankings behind New Zealand and Ireland.

That is due to nine consecutive wins, the most successful winning margin since 1999 and the longest sequence under coach Gatland.

South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus described Wales as "silent assassins" when discussing World Cup hopefuls.

With 10 months to go until the global tournament begins, are Wales genuine contenders? They are one of the favourites, whether they like it or not.

Almost perfect

Statistically, Wales have achieved the most wins in a calendar year since Gatland took over in 2007. Ten wins in 12 games in 2018 makes impressive reading, with only two away Six Nations defeats, against Ireland and England, blotting the copybook.

Wales have beaten two of the three big Southern Hemisphere nations in the same calendar year for the first time, with wins over South Africa and Australia, who were beaten for the first time in 10 years and 14 attempts.

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Francis gives Wales early lead over South Africa

Wales will be looking to move to the next step in 2019, with none of their victories this year coming against the other sides in the top four of the world rankings.

Since losing in Dublin in February, Wales' nine-match winning run includes triumphs over Italy, France, South Africa (twice), Argentina (twice), Scotland, Australia and Tonga,

An impressive list, yes, but New Zealand, England and Ireland should now be in Wales' sights.

Strength in depth

Never has a Wales squad looked so strong with 38 players used this autumn. Gatland has achieved this by leaving most of their British and Irish Lions at home for the summer tour.

They still managed two victories over Argentina and a win over the Springboks in Washington DC. The trip also helped fast-track fresh options such as Josh Adams, Tomos Williams, Owen Watkin, Adam Beard and Aaron Wainwright, to challenge the established order.

All five of those players featured in Saturday's win over the Springboks at the Principality Stadium.

The foundations had been laid in the Six Nations when Wales made 10 changes for the win over Italy and continued in the autumn when the supposed second string hammered Tonga by a record 74-24.

Wales wing Liam Williams
Liam Williams scored two tries against Tonga in the 74-24 win

The question of back-row resources is a perfect example of Wales' current options. Lions captain Sam Warburton retired in the summer and Wales suffered setbacks with Taulupe Faletau, Josh Navidi, Aaron Shingler and James Davies all unavailable for the autumn programme.

Lions Test flanker Dan Lydiate returned before missing the final match against South Africa through injury to be replaced by Ellis Jenkins.

In turn, the Cardiff Blues captain produced a majestic man-of-the-match performance before being cruelly stretchered off at the end of the game with a suspected ACL injury.

Ospreys skipper Justin Tipuric has stepped out of Warburton's shadow to become Wales' player of the autumn, with man-of-the-match performances against Scotland and Australia.

So when inevitable injuries occur, other options develop. You would only say now captain Alun Wyn Jones and centre Jonathan Davies are almost irreplaceable for Wales.

Subtle style change

Wales' game plan is still based on a high fitness and dynamic defence under the tutelage of Shaun Edwards and the rearguard resistance has been outstanding again this autumn.

The hosts have scored early tries against Scotland and South Africa and held firm under attacking onslaughts, while also restricting the Wallabies to just two penalties as Wales triumphed in games they previously would have lost.

Only five tries conceded in four games and one in the two matches against South Africa and Australia tells the story.

Dan Biggar (left) and Gareth Anscombe (right) celebrate beating Australia with Dillon Lewis (centre)
Dan Biggar (left) and Gareth Anscombe (right) celebrate beating Australia with Dillon Lewis (centre)

Wales have also developed their attacking game under Rob Howley in 2018 with more offloads and forwards carrying, typified by prop Tomas Francis scoring against South Africa after being set up by back-rower Jenkins.

Gatland commented after the South Africa win that he, Howley and forwards coach Robin McBryde would still be targeted by social media's "keyboard warriors" but Wales deserve credit for their attacking approach.

They have experimented with changes at 10, with the more creative Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell being given opportunities alongside the established Dan Biggar.

Anscombe and Patchell both shone at different times, while Biggar emphasised his importance during the final quarters against Australia and South Africa when his composed kicking cameos helped Wales seal victory.

So, more debate over the famous Wales 10 shirt will follow going into the new year - not something Gatland wanted, but knew was going to happen.

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Williams adds second try to put Wales in control

Gatland going

Gatland leaves Wales after the 2019 World Cup and will want to end his successful 12-year tenure on a high.

The New Zealander showed remarkable courage and dignity ahead of the autumn campaign by returning to his native land for the funeral of his father, before arriving back to take charge just before the Scotland match.

Family first is the message in the Wales camp and it could become a very successful family over the next year if everything goes to plan.

The Six Nations campaign starts with away trips against France and Italy, and successes in Paris and Rome would equal Wales' longest winning streak of 11.

That record could be beaten by a win over England in Cardiff in February, before Wales travel to Scotland and then Ireland visit Cardiff on the final weekend of the tournament.

Warren Gatland coached the British and Irish Lions to a Test series win over Australia in 2013 and drew against New Zealand four years later
Warren Gatland coached the British and Irish Lions to a Test series win over Australia in 2013 and drew against New Zealand four years later

Pre-tournament friendlies against England and Ireland follow in August before the World Cup starts in September, with Wales facing Australia, Fiji, Georgia and Uruguay in their pool.

Gatland will have his Wales squad for four months before the tournament and has shown he has flourished when provided with time to prepare his party.

It will be his third global tournament with quarter-final and semi-final places already on his Wales CV. Can he go one or even two steps further?

Gatland and Wales will dare to dream. If that happens, they definitely won't be under the radar.

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