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Gatland backs underdogs Wales to do ‘something special’ at Rugby World Cup

Warren Gatland faces a monumental task in his bid to take Wales to a third Rugby World Cup semi-final under his watch, but the Kiwi coach insists his team will do “something special” in France.

The New Zealander oversaw Wales’ most successful period of modern times between 2007-19, leading the team to three Six Nations Grand Slams and the last-four stage of both the 2011 and 2019 Rugby World Cups.

In that time Gatland also coached the British and Irish Lions on three tours, winning the series in Australia in 2013, drawing against New Zealand in 2017 and losing the series against South Africa in 2021.

There can be no doubting his coaching pedigree, and it was Gatland the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) turned to for a second spell after sacking his successor Wayne Pivac following a poor run of results that included a first home losses to Italy and Georgia.

Gatland’s team finished fifth in last year’s Six Nations campaign, which was overshadowed by a series of off-field issues.

Allegations of sexism, racism and homophobia within the WRU are currently the subject of an independent review.

Wales players threatened strike action over contract issues earlier this year, while financial troubles continue to engulf the professional game.

Wales have also slumped to tenth in World Rugby’s official rankings and talismanic figures such as Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb have all recently retired from the international game.

‘Surprise some people’

But Gatland remains positive, and will be hoping to galvanise a team still featuring veterans such as George North, Taulupe Faletau, Liam Williams and Dan Biggar but also including a raft of younger inexperienced players such as stand-out winger Louis Rees-Zammit.

“I’m telling you this team will do something pretty special,” Gatland said.

“If I look back on the Six Nations and all the things that were going on, I probably needed to let things unfold a bit and not be as direct or demanding as I might have normally been.

“The fact that things have settled down and a lot of new players have come in, the way that we’ve been so much more accountable for how we do things and demanding standards, that has been brilliant.

“As a group, we are in a good place. I promise you now, we will surprise some people.”

Wales have been drawn in Pool C alongside Fiji, Australia and Georgia.

Only the Lelos and expected whipping boys Portugal are ranked lower than the Welsh.

Gatland has selected 14 backs and 19 forwards for the tournament, with Wales facing Fiji — the team that knocked them out of the 2007 World Cup in France — in their Pool C opener in Bordeaux on Sunday.

Just as Gatland picked Sam Warburton as a surprise younger skipper in 2011, so he has named flanker Jac Morgan, 23, and hooker Dewi Lake, 24, as co-captains for France.

“It is a good opportunity. Both of them have a big future ahead of them,” Gatland said.

The Kiwi coach said he was motivated by the challenge ahead.

“What gives me an edge or a buzz is when the expectations aren’t there or the challenges appear to be greater,” he said.

“That drives me even more.”

Being written off “is allowing us to come in under the radar, and there is nothing the Welsh boys love better than being written off and backs to the wall. They tend to respond to that”.