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Warren Gatland has backed Wales to do “something pretty special” at the World Cup in France.
Wales face England in their opening tournament warm-up game on Saturday after winning just two of the last 10 Tests.
A miserable Six Nations campaign produced a fifth-placed finish, while player contracts, financial issues throughout Welsh professional rugby and the threat of a players’ strike significantly compounded matters.
Wales have also dropped to ninth in World Rugby’s official rankings and seen talismanic figures like Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb all retire from international rugby since the end of last season.
Head coach Gatland, though, has delivered an upbeat message ahead of Wales’ preparation games against England home and away, plus South Africa, before a tough World Cup opener against Fiji in Bordeaux on September 10.
Asked if he relished Wales being written off, Gatland said: “Yeah. Continue to do it because it’s only going to make us stronger.
“I am really excited. I’m telling you this team will do something pretty special.
I promise you now, we will surprise some people
“I think 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’ training squad experienced punishing training camps in Switzerland and Turkey during the past month and Gatland will parade three news caps – Max Llewellyn, Corey Domachowski and Keiron Assiratti – among a starting line-up captained for the first time by flanker Jac Morgan.
“I have got to say that I am incredibly impressed with this group of players in the last eight weeks,” Gatland added.
“They are in great shape physically. I couldn’t have asked for any more.
“They have been to the well and had to dig deep with everything we’ve put them through. They have been absolutely brilliant.
“We’ve had tough sessions, but come out the other side. The hardest thing is naming the 33 (final World Cup squad). There will be some real tough calls.”
Gatland, meanwhile, says he can see a likeness between 23-year-old Morgan and Sam Warburton, who was appointed Wales skipper ahead of World Cup in 2011 at the age of 22.
Other leadership candidates will also be assessed during the warm-up schedule, but Morgan has first opportunity to put down a marker.
“He is a fantastic individual and he is respected in the group. He has got a big future for Wales,” Gatland said.
“He doesn’t say a lot or talk a lot, a bit like Sam Warburton. He does his talking out there and leads by example.
“We went to Turkey last week and took a referee out there with us to do some live stuff.
“One of the comments from him (referee) was that some of the interaction from Jac was really impressive. He was asking good, positive questions and that was probably an indication that we had made the right call.”
Gatland, meanwhile, has also hailed full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who will become the ninth player to win 100 Wales caps when he runs out against England.
“He will be leading the side out,” Gatland added. “He is driven and he is a role model for everyone coming through who looks up to him.
“If you are talking about role models as a professional, you could not get a harder worker than Leigh Halfpenny in terms of how he prepares.
“The analysis, training and recovery. He is the ultimate professional.”
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