Wales' Rugby World Cup squad have pulled together after the shock of backs coach Rob Howley being sent home from Japan over an alleged breach of betting regulations.

On Tuesday, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) confirmed Howley had returned to Wales six days before the team's opening World Cup match against Georgia in order to "assist with an investigation in relation to a potential breach of World Rugby regulation 6, specifically betting on rugby union".

Head coach Warren Gatland was forced to absorb a potentially damaging blow to his squad on his 56th birthday – something he made light of a Wednesday news conference where he praised the players' togetherness and discussed former Wales fly-half Stephen Jones coming in as Howley's replacement.

"I've had better birthdays, for sure," Gatland told a news conference at Wales' Kitakyushu base.

"We were shocked with it but, as I said, the union are dealing with this and my focus now has to be on the next five days, in terms of preparing the squad for their first game against Georgia.

"I spoke to Stephen Jones the other night about his availability to come in. He was willing to help and do that. The exciting thing about that is he's been in this environment in the past.

"He'll bring his own personality to the squad and have the opportunity to give his own ideas and input.

"For us [we have to] make it as seamless as we possibly can. You have to deal with adversity at times. I must say that the players in the past 24 hours have really stepped up.

"They've been incredibly responsible and resilient and sometimes that brings teams closer together. We've got to draw a line in the sand and really focus on preparing the team for the next five days.

"We got a shock the other day and it took a bit of time for this to sink in."

Dan Biggar could feel the effects of Howley's departure more than most, as he heads into the tournament as Wales' first choice at number 10.

"They [the players] were disappointed," Biggar said. "Especially for people like myself and Jon [centre Jonathan Davies], who have only ever had Rob as coach in the set-up and he has given us every single cap we've had.

"It's a huge disappointment, really, and shock, I suppose, but we are also adults and realise if things like this happen then we have just got to get on with it.

"That's what has been great about this squad over the last year or two. Whatever has come our way – we had a couple of distractions in the last Six Nations and we went on to win our final two games and the Grand Slam – we are strong."

Davies has plenty of experience working alongside Jones for Scarlets and believes he will have a positive impact upon the group.

"As well what he carried over to the coaching side, [what stood out] with Steve was the energy he always had as a player," Davies said. "On the training field he always had that bounce about him.

"He always demands high standards and tactically he wants the boys to play what's in front of them and make sure we make the right decisions.

"There will be a lot of excitement and Steve will give it his best shot, I can guarantee that."

After facing Georgia on September 23, Wales take on Australia, Fiji and Uruguay in Pool D.

Chris Coleman has defended Gareth Bale's reserved nature and revealed the oft-criticised Real Madrid winger can speak perfect Spanish.

Wales star Bale almost left LaLiga for China during a turbulent close season in which Zinedine Zidane attempted to force him out of the Santiago Bernabeu.

The pair's relationship reportedly became fractured as Madrid fans showed increasing coldness towards the four-time Champions League winner, their treatment of him described as a "disgrace" by the player's agent.

Criticism of Bale has tended to centre on his speculated inability to learn Spanish as part of a wider reluctance to integrate into the country's culture.

Coleman, who managed the former Tottenham talisman for over five years at international level, believes such accusations are at least in part unfounded.

"I saw John Toshack saying Gareth hasn't given enough of himself to the public in Madrid," the former Wales boss told The Athletic.

"Well he's never done that. It's not his character. When he comes home he plays golf, stays with his family, in his little circle.

"I just thought it was unfair when people were picking him apart. He should do this, do that. No, be yourself. If he's not happy in his head he won't be right on the pitch.

"I've been with Gareth in Madrid, in a restaurant, and he's speaking perfect Spanish, ordering food, greeting people.

"He was very polite, but it's his own space. He has done all his talking on the pitch. He is the most decorated foreign import from the UK."

Bale was Coleman's key man when Wales exceeded expectations by reaching the semi-finals at Euro 2016.

Coleman stepped down the following November to take up an ill-fated opportunity at Sunderland, with Ryan Giggs named as his replacement.

Performances have not been entirely convincing but the former Fulham manager expects his successor to prove a shrewd appointment.

"I think he'll be good at it," Coleman said. "He is different to me and will do it his own way. Ryan's quiet, but he's super strong mentally."

He added: "Ryan's ego is not big enough where he thinks he's got all the answers, because none of us have. This is his first job, we mustn't forget that. He's going to get better and better."

It is little surprise to see powerhouses New Zealand start the Rugby World Cup as pre-tournament favourites.

The two-time defending champions remain the most fearsome side in world rugby and only the brave would bet against the All Blacks winning an unprecedented third straight trophy.

But the gulf between New Zealand and the chasing pack has been closed significantly, with Ireland starting the tournament as the number one ranked side.

With that in mind, three Omnisport writers give their thoughts on who will triumph in Japan, who may upset the odds and the player to watch throughout the tournament.


PETER HANSON

Winners: New Zealand

The All Blacks may not have the same air of invincibility they once held but it will still take an off day from Steve Hansen's men and a top performance from the other contenders to deny New Zealand a third straight title. Rare blips, such as the defeat to Australia and draw with South Africa in the Rugby Championship, will only galvanise this scarily talented squad, which has so much depth the likes of Owen Franks and Ngani Laumape did not even make the plane. England, Ireland, Wales and South Africa will all feel they can spring an upset, but I just don't see anyone dethroning the All Blacks.

Dark horses: Australia

It seems pretty absurd that a proud rugby nation such as Australia should be considered as outsiders, but that is the position Michael Cheika's side find themselves in. Inconsistent form over the past few years has seen the Wallabies lose some of their fear factor. You should always beware the wounded animal, though, and Australia really know how to turn it on at the World Cup. Twice champions of the world and twice runners-up, including four years ago when again they flew somewhat under the radar to make the final, discount the Aussies at your peril.

Player to watch: Sevu Reece

Exciting, electric, powerhouse New Zealand wingers go hand-in-hand with the World Cup and Sevu Reece is the next off the seemingly never-ending production line. He only made his Super Rugby debut for Crusaders in March, but finished the season as top try scorer with 15. At 22 years old, Reece still has plenty of time on his hands but he can already make a name for himself on the world stage.


PETE THOMPSON

Winners: South Africa

New Zealand will take some stopping in their bid to do what has never done before, but South Africa look well equipped to match the All Blacks' record of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup three times.

The Springboks have experienced a renaissance under Rassie Erasmus, with a formidable pack mixed with flair, and after winning the Rugby Championship in August they can become champions of the world in Yokohama on November 2.

Dark horses: Japan

Japan stunned South Africa in 2015 and home advantage can inspire them to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.

Captain and number eight Michael Leitch will drive on Jamie Joseph's exciting side, who can be a joy to watch with their skill, speed and agility.

Player to watch: Faf de Klerk

Faf de Klerk is not a giant in stature, but the South Africa scrum-half can light up the tournament.

The playmaker has played a huge part in the Springboks' resurgence, pulling the strings and setting the tempo and he can get South Africa ticking on the biggest stage of all.


TOM WEBBER

Winners: South Africa

The Springboks have come a long way under Erasmus and are unbeaten in 2019. They claimed an impressive draw against the All Blacks in New Zealand in July and went on to seal the Rugby Championship, undoubtedly making them the form team heading to Japan.

Dark horses: Argentina

The Pumas have not won a Test match since beating Australia 23-19 in September 2018, but the Jaguares making it all the way to the Super Rugby final this year shows this is a group of players with serious talent. The success of their campaign will likely hinge on their opening match against France at Tokyo Stadium, with England also in Pool C.

Player to watch: Peceli Yato

Yato has shown himself to be an accomplished flanker with Clermont Auvergne in the Top 14 in recent seasons; in 2018-19 he scored more tries and made more metres than any other forward in the division. However, with Fiji in a group that includes Australia and Wales they will likely need to claim a scalp against one of those sides to have a chance of advancing.

Wales backs coach Rob Howley has been sent home from the Rugby World Cup over an alleged breach of betting regulations.

The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) confirmed Howley has returned to Wales six days before the team's opening World Cup match against Georgia in order to "assist with an investigation in relation to a potential breach of World Rugby regulation 6, specifically betting on rugby union".

A WRU statement said: "The decision was taken to act immediately in light of recent information passed to the WRU.

"No further details can be provided at this stage as this would prejudice the investigation. If required an independent panel will be appointed to hear the case.

"Rob has co-operated fully with our initial discussions and we would ask that the media appreciate this is a difficult and personal matter for Rob and that his privacy is respected before an outcome is reached.

"Warren Gatland has consulted with senior players and Stephen Jones will be arriving in Japan imminently to link up with the squad as attack coach."

Howley has been a key member of Gatland's backroom staff and oversaw their 2013 Six Nations success while the New Zealander was on a British and Irish Lions sabbatical.

The former Wasps scrum-half was part of Gatland's coaching team when the Lions triumphed in Australia in 2013 and drew a series against the All Blacks four years later.

The 48-year-old will leave his role with Wales when Gatland departs after the World Cup and had been touted as a potential replacement for Conor O'Shea as Italy boss.

The world's best are converging on Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, where New Zealand will hope to again defend their title.

But with only 31 players able to be selected by each team, a number of notable names have not made the cut this year.

We take a look at five who might count themselves unfortunate not to be involved in the sport's biggest event.


Devin Toner (Ireland)

Ireland have not quite hit the same heights this year as in 2018 when they won the Six Nations Grand Slam and defeated the All Blacks, yet they have no shortage of options. The inclusion of Jean Kleyn, recently eligible due to the residency rule, has seen Devin Toner miss out.

Remarkably, that law and Joe Schmidt's decision resulted in criticism from World Rugby vice-president Agustin Pichot, who posted on Twitter: "I will be asking WR [World Rugby] for answers. I feel sorry for [Toner]."

Schmidt responded: "I think [Pichot] has a number of big opinions, but they're not ones that are relevant for us. Considering he is involved in World Rugby, he could have a look at what the rules were and not have so many things to say because for us it is tough enough to do our job and tough enough for me to have a conversation as I did with Dev."


Ben Te'o (England)

With some key men fit again and available, experienced centre Ben Te'o paid the price.

Head coach Eddie Jones was understandably questioned on the decision and explained: "I'm not going to go into reasons why he wasn't selected. We've had conversations; he understands it. Whether he agrees with it is another matter. We've had that discussion with him and he's just not in our top 31 players at the moment."

Te'o will instead be plying his trade with Toulon during the tournament, having been called in as cover for their World Cup stars.


Owen Franks (New Zealand)

Not many teams have the luxury of leaving out a 31-year-old with 108 Tests to his name. But not many teams have the depth of New Zealand, unfortunately for Owen Franks.

Franks had started each of the past two World Cup finals, playing the full 80 minutes in the 2011 triumph over France, but will not feature in the All Blacks' latest title defence.

Steve Hansen, who also left out Ngani Laumape, said: "[Franks] is one of the great All Blacks, he's played over 100 Tests. But unfortunately we believe the game requires us to have big, mobile ones and threes and, in this case, we think the other guys are more so. It was a tough decision."


Mathieu Bastareaud (France)

France named their initial World Cup squad in June and, while there were changes before the final selection was confirmed, Mathieu Bastareaud was not given the opportunity to force his way back into the side.

Bastareaud was Les Bleus' vice-captain as recently as the Six Nations, but his role in an underwhelming campaign appeared to count against him when coach Jacques Brunel named a youthful group.

Morgan Parra and Teddy Thomas missed out, too, although Brunel insisted Fabien Galthie, who will take over as coach following the tournament, had no role in the decisions.


Rob Evans (Wales)

Loosehead prop Rob Evans was one of the stars of Wales' Six Nations Grand Slam campaign this year but, along with Samson Lee, did not do enough to make Warren Gatland's 31-man squad.

It appears injury issues counted against Scarlets star Evans, who has played 36 Tests, although he is fit again following a shoulder operation at the end of last season.

Gatland explained Wales were preferring more "durable" options, saying: "Rob hasn't trained a lot in the lead up to the warm-up matches. He came in with a shoulder injury, then he's picked up a neck injury and a couple of back issues. Rob hadn't played a lot."

Sam Warburton believes New Zealand captain Kieran Read deserves to be a Rugby World Cup-winning skipper and can foresee a successful All Blacks campaign.

Read will retire after the upcoming World Cup, where New Zealand are chasing a third straight title and fourth in total.

The 33-year-old featured in the 2011 and 2015 successes but only replaced Richie McCaw as the All Blacks captain in 2016, meaning he has not yet led the team at a finals.

Warburton was Wales skipper at consecutive World Cups and believes Read fits the role of a successful leader.

"You look at World Cup winners and - I won't say names - some people you come across, it doesn't suit them, no disrespect," Warburton told Omnisport.

"Then there's some people like Kieran Read who comes across the table and he just suits being a World Cup captain. He's got that iconic, legendary status.

"If he doesn't win a World Cup, he'll always be a legend and an icon of the New Zealand game anyway, but he's been such a good player and ambassador for New Zealand rugby, you think he's the type of person who deserves the accolade to be a World Cup-winning captain.

"It wouldn't surprise me to see New Zealand lifting the World Cup with Kieran Read. It would suit him very well. He's been a legendary player.

"He deserves to achieve all the success that he already has achieved and further success still."

As two-time defending champions, New Zealand are the team to beat in Japan but Warburton does not believe any side with serious title ambitions should be looking to avoid the All Blacks.

"It depends what your motivation is. If your motivation is just to have a really good run in the World Cup, then you want to avoid New Zealand," he said.

"If your motivation is that you're going to win the World Cup, then it doesn't matter where you're going to meet them. You've got to beat them anyway.

"Some teams will be thinking, 'If we can get to a quarters or a semis, this would be brilliant, so we want to win our group to avoid New Zealand'.

"There's going to be some teams thinking, 'I don't care how we get there, we're going to beat every team to get to the World Cup final'. It depends how the team's thinking.

"Fans will obviously want to see you play New Zealand in a final because they'll want to see you have a good run.

"But if you're going to doubt yourself in a quarter, then it makes no difference if it's the quarter or the final. You're doubting yourself for the final, you've written the final off.

"For me, it doesn't actually matter when you play these teams. I think if you want to win the World Cup, you want to win it the hard way so you get the respect of the whole world that you've deserved to win it.

"You don't want an easy run to the final. So for me, personally, it wouldn't matter. But I can understand why some teams would rather meet New Zealand later on."


Open Side by Sam Warburton (HarperCollins) is out on 19th September.

Over the next six weeks, dreams will be realised, heroes will emerge and hearts will be broken at the Rugby World Cup.

The greatest prize in the sport is up for grabs in Japan, where New Zealand are aiming to be crowned champions for the third successive tournament.

There are sure to be thrills, spills and stories that will stand the test of time.

Below, we take a look at some of the most memorable moments in the history of the Rugby World Cup.


Wilkinson kicks England to glory in Sydney

England entered the 2003 Rugby World Cup as favourites and regarded as the best team in the world. Clive Woodward's side lived up to the billing to set up a final against an Australia outfit led by now England coach Eddie Jones. A tense encounter between the old rivals was level at 14-14 by full-time and a penalty each from Jonny Wilkinson and Elton Flatley meant the teams were still tied with the clock winding down. But in a dramatic finale, Martin Johnson drew the contact, Matt Dawson bided his time with the pass and England legend Wilkinson, on his weaker right foot, nailed the drop goal to kick his country to World Cup glory – becoming the first northern hemisphere side in history to lift the trophy.

Western Samoa upset Wales in Cardiff

It just was not in the script. Wales, one of the proudest rugby nations in the world, were hosting the unheralded Western Samoa in Cardiff. A routine win, surely? Think again. In one of the worst days in Wales' rugby history, the Cardiff Arms Park crowd were stunned by a 16-13 defeat in the 1991 World Cup in which Mathew Vaea starred with the boot. Wales failed to make it out of the group stages and it marked the first time a seeded nation had lost to a non-seeded nation. 

Warburton sees red as Wales fall agonisingly short

It was 10 years later that Wales would suffer more disappointment, albeit in more valiant and heart-breaking fashion in a 9-8 loss to France in an Auckland semi-final. That Wales came so close is to their credit given they were reduced to 14 men in the 19th minute when talismanic captain Sam Warburton was controversially sent off for a big tackle on Vincent Clerc. A yellow card would have been a fairer decision in such a huge game but luck did not favour Wales, who saw Stephen Jones hit the post with the conversion from Mike Phillips' try with 23 minutes remaining. Leigh Halfpenny also saw a long-range attempt fall short as Wales' World Cup dream came to a halt.

Lomu bulldozes Catt in England slaughtering 

It was a performance of a lifetime. Having already starred with three tries prior to the 1995 semi-final, Jonah Lomu truly announced himself on the world stage with a four-score haul in the All Blacks' 45-29 hammering of England in Cape Town. It was a barnstorming, awe-inspiring showing from the giant flyer, who unceremoniously trampled over future World Cup winner Mike Catt in one of the tournament's most famous tries.

Pienaar-led Springboks unite South Africa 

Lomu and New Zealand fell short in the 1995 final, though. The sight of South Africa president Nelson Mandela donning a Springboks jersey and handing over the Webb Ellis Cup to inspirational captain Francois Pienaar is one of the most iconic images in sport. South Africa tamed Lomu and the All Blacks to triumph 15-12 in Johannesburg.

Brave Blossoms cause monumental Springboks shock

It was an altogether different feeling for South Africa a decade later as the Springboks were victims of one the greatest upsets in the history of all sports against Japan. The two-time world champions boasted 851-caps worth of experience in their starting XV, but the Brave Blossoms lived up to their name with a performance brimming with pace and invention. Karne Hesketh was the man who wrote his name into history with the late try that secured an unbelievable 34-32 victory in Brighton.

The Rugby World Cup is the greatest stage in the sport and offers an incredible chance for players to make a name for themselves.

Hosts Japan and Russia will get the action underway on Friday and 24 hours later spectators will have also been treated to Australia v Fiji, France v Argentina and New Zealand v South Africa.

It promises to be a hugely entertaining tournament and we have taken a look at the young talents set to light up the competition.

 

Sevu Reece (22, New Zealand)

He only made his Crusaders debut as an injury replacement against the Chiefs in March, but Reece has already established himself as one of the most exciting wings in the world.

Reece's incredible pace and clinical finishing saw him top the Super Rugby try-scoring charts with 15 as the Crusaders won the title for the third straight year and he has touched down twice in his three appearances for the All Blacks.

Tom Curry (21, England)

Eddie Jones has long been an admirer of flanker Curry, making him the youngest player to start for England in 90 years during the tour to Argentina in 2017.

That came at the end of his breakthrough season at Sale Sharks and the back-rower has gone from strength to strength, starting all of England's Six Nations matches this year.

Romain Ntamack (20, France)

Ntamack can play at inside centre of fly-half and comes from good stock: his father Emile won 46 caps for France and was part of the side that won the Five Nations Grand Slam in 1997 and reached the World Cup final two years later.

But Romain has proved himself a promising player in his own right, winning the Six Nations and World Cup at Under-20 level in 2018 and helping Toulouse end a seven-year wait for Top 14 success last season.

Herschel Jantjies (23, South Africa)

Stormers scrum-half Jantjies wasted no time in making his mark for the Springboks, scoring a debut double against Australia in July.

Jantjies then touched down in the 80th minute to help earn a 16-16 draw against the All Blacks in his second cap - a result that proved crucial to South Africa winning the Rugby Championship for the first time in 10 years.

Rhys Carre (21, Wales)

The 6ft 3in, 20-stone prop was included in Warren Gatland's squad for Japan having only made his international debut against Ireland on August 31.

Towering front-rower Carre was in April snapped up by Premiership champions Saracens and will likely have a big impact in the breakdown, set-piece and when carrying the ball.

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has backed Daniel James to continue his flying start to life at Old Trafford.

Winger James, 21, joined United from Swansea City in June for a reported £15million in a deal that caught many by surprise given he had been close to signing for Championship side Leeds United a few months earlier.

Of United's three close-season signings – Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire being the others – James was the least heralded, but the rapid forward has arguably made the greatest impact, scoring three times in four Premier League appearances as well as being named the club's Player of the Month for August.

A goal against Leicester City on Saturday will make James – who also netted on international duty with Wales on Monday – only the second United player to score in his first three Premier League games at Old Trafford and Solskjaer has great expectations.

"He's had a great start and transferring that into the Wales games is great for him and great for Giggsy [Wales boss Ryan Giggs]," Solskjaer told United's official app.

"I just hope he [James] feels that there's more to come. We feel there's more to come. He's had a great start, but it's just the start of his career."

Saturday's clash will see Maguire come up against his former club for the first time since leaving them to become the world's most expensive defender and Solskjaer is confident he will thrive despite the impressive form of Jamie Vardy and James Maddison.

"They're creative, they have pace, there's a good link-up between the two of them," Solskjaer said of Leicester's star duo.

"We know from last year that Maddison created loads of chances and to have Vardy's energy and penetration and running in behind all the time is great for any creative player.

"I know he [Maguire] will be fine, because he's a top character and a top player. I'm sure he'll look forward to playing against his old team-mates.

"He'll know them and they'll know him. I'm sure we'll see the best of Harry in that game."

Ryan Giggs hailed "amazing" Daniel James after the young winger continued his impressive campaign with a match-winning strike in the 1-0 victory against Belarus.

James cut inside from the left and curled the ball away from Maksim Plotnikov for the only goal of the game 17 minutes into Monday's friendly at the Cardiff City Stadium.

He has now scored twice in six senior appearances for Wales and has hit the ground running at new club Manchester United, the 21-year-old finding the net three times in his first four appearances since joining in a reported £15million deal.

Giggs was tempted to rest James for the friendly in Cardiff, watched by a low crowd of just 7,666 spectators, but the ex-Swansea City ace put his name forward for selection and lit up the game with his play out wide.

"It was a difficult one with Dan whether to rest him, but he wanted to play," Giggs said at his post-match news conference.

"When you are in form like his, players just want to play and keep scoring. He gets fans off their feet. Every time he gets the ball the fans are looking for him to do something.

"Regarding the fans, I would like to thank fans who did turn up because it's not easy. The schools have gone back and it's difficult to get to games. But I think they would have enjoyed it tonight and enjoyed Dan's performance as well as the team performance."

James has earned obvious comparisons to Giggs and has been challenged by his national boss and compatriot to maintain his fine form.

"I think early on when I saw DJ, just like any young winger, there can be that improvement with the final ball and scoring more goals and he's doing that," said Giggs, who spent 24 trophy-laden years in United's senior team.

"To do what he's done at the start of the season is amazing. The next step is showing that consistency and he needs to carry it on, but I've got no doubts that will happen because he wants to be the best.

"He's a great character and a great trainer. He wanted to play tonight. I'm really pleased for him. He's one of those players where you know what he's going to do but you can't stop it."

James also played the full 90 minutes of Friday's 2-1 Euro 2020 qualifying win against Azerbaijan and will now head back to his club side ahead of the Premier League clash with Leicester City.

"I'm loving football at the minute," James told Sky Sports. "The season's started well for me and I've got to continue doing it. 

"I've got the right people around me - the gaffer is here and great at United, too - and it's about continuing that."

He added: "I know it was only a friendly but we played some great football and we should have gone two or three nil up. We've got to score more goals in our next camp."

Wales return to qualifying action on October 10 with a trip to Slovakia and take on Croatia in Cardiff three days later.

Daniel James maintained his impressive form for club and country by scoring the only goal of the game as Wales beat Belarus 1-0 in Monday's friendly at the Cardiff City Stadium.

The young winger has starred for Manchester United in the early weeks of the season and transferred his club form onto the international stage with an impressive winner 17 minutes into the match against a lacklustre Belarus side.

Gareth Bale started the game on the bench and Ryan Giggs saw his side produce an improved display on the back of Friday's disappointing late 2-1 victory over Azerbaijan in Euro 2020 qualifying.

Wales had chances to double their tally, with Bale guilty of missing a great opportunity, but in the end James' second senior goal for Wales proved enough to make it back-to-back victories.

Giggs' men managed only three shots on target against Azerbaijan but they tested Maksim Plotnikov inside the opening seven minutes here, the Belarus keeper parrying Harry Wilson's left-footed shot following a swift attack.

Plotnikov could not get a hand to James' fine curling effort into the bottom-right corner, however, with the winger collecting the ball from Jonny Williams and picking his spot after cutting in from the left.

The hosts went close to doubling their lead seven minutes into the second half when Wilson's whipped delivery went through a sea of bodies and came back off the post.

Bale was brought on for James and missed a glorious chance around 10 yards from goal once picked out by Wilson, blazing over the crossbar with plenty of the goal to aim for.

Belarus offered little attacking threat in the remainder of the game but Wales also struggled to create further clear-cut chances, meaning another narrow win in front of the 7,666 spectators in attendance.


What does it mean? Giggs' Wales building momentum

Supporters voted with their feet by staying away from the quarter-full Cardiff City Stadium, but Giggs will be pleased that his side are steadily building some momentum - even if the performances have been far from great.

After the disappointment of losing back-to-back matches in June, it is now successive wins for Wales and they will be feeling a lot more confident ahead of a couple of tough qualifiers in October that will make or break their Euro 2020 campaign.

James becoming Wales' key man

James was Wales' liveliest player for large parts against Azerbaijan and he again proved to be their biggest threat before being replaced early in the second half by Bale, the player he is earning plenty of comparisons with early in his career.

Wales still seeking a number nine

Giggs handed debuts to Joe Morrell and Kieffer Moore, the latter being asked to lead the line. That continues to be a troublesome position for Wales and Moore, despite the odd promising moment, did not offer a lot to suggest he will retain his place in the side - though he could offer an alternative option from the bench in future.

What's next?

Wales face two crucial Euro 2020 qualifiers next month as they travel to Slovakia on October 10 and welcome Croatia to Cardiff three days later, while Belarus have back-to-back home games against Estonia and Netherlands.

Gareth Bale says he would be wasting his time playing for Wales if he did not believe Ryan Giggs' side could qualify for Euro 2020.

Bale salvaged a victory for Wales on Friday, with his late goal securing a 2-1 home win over Azerbaijan.

The win lifted Wales on to six points from their four games in Group E, and though they sit in fourth, they are only three points behind joint-leaders Croatia and Hungary.

Slovakia are level with Wales as it stands, and the sides will face off in what could be a crucial qualifier on October 10.

Though Bale acknowledged the squad are still working on adapting to Giggs' desired style of play, he is in no doubt Wales - semi-finalists at Euro 2016 - can qualify for next year's tournament.

"Yeah definitely, I wouldn't be here otherwise, I would not be wasting my time," Bale told a news conference ahead of Monday's friendly against Belarus.

"I love playing for my country, I love trying to qualify for major tournaments and having that taste of it at Euro 2016 gives you that hunger to do it again and to experience what we did.

"We all still fully believe we can and we hope the public still believes and give us all the support we need because they're the 12th man.

"I think we're still working on things and there's things we're improving on. We're working on [Giggs'] style of play, what he wants us to do and sometimes it does take a bit of time.

"I think that's why it's good now to have a friendly. A match situation is always more intense and more difficult to do things than in training.

"We still want to keep that winning mentality and get that momentum building and by winning games that's what you do."

Bale's header against Azerbaijan took the 30-year-old four clear of Ian Rush as the leading scorer in Wales' history with 32, and the Real Madrid forward acknowledged he has a target of international goals in mind.

"I've got a little target in my head but it's just one of those personal goals," Wales' captain added.

"If I achieve it, great, but if I don't then it's okay. It's something I'd like to do but the most important thing is to win games for my country and to give fans something to cheer about."

Ireland head to the Rugby World Cup as the highest-ranked side in the world after winning captain Rory Best's final home match before retirement 19-10 against Wales, who will just be glad to have avoided serious pre-tournament injury scares.

Wales lost Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb to injuries in their final warm-up game before the 2015 tournament, but a bang on the head for Rhys Patchell – who was able to walk off the pitch unaided – was the only notable issue for Warren Gatland on Saturday.

Perhaps less superstitious about such situations, Ireland – welcoming Johnny Sexton back into the team – looked far more ruthless and were able to give Best a victorious send-off, with the 37-year-old withdrawn in the 53rd minute.

An evenly contested opening resulted in neither side adding points to the board until the 21st minute, when Rob Kearney received Conor Murray's quick offload before touching down in the corner before Sexton added the extras.

Wales did lose Patchell – making his first Test start since June 2018 – after he sustained a knock to the head in a collision with CJ Stander, though he walked off and the visitors' initial response was impressive.

After seeing one opportunity for their first try go begging when Dan Biggar was just about held up, the resulting five-metre scrum came to Hadleigh Parkes to charge over, with Halfpenny converting after a successful earlier penalty.

Ireland stepped things up after the interval and went back in front when Tadhg Furlong burrowed his way over following another scrum.

James Ryan followed suit 10 minutes later, touching down despite Aaron Wainwright's best efforts, leaving coach Joe Schmidt – like Best – triumphant in his final match in Ireland.

Ryan Giggs does not think Wales' slender 2-1 win over Azerbaijan is anything to be alarmed about, reminding his critics World Cup finalists Croatia only beat Nikola Jurcevic's men by the same score.

Wales dominated much of the Euro 2020 qualifier at Cardiff City Stadium on Friday, taking the lead fortuitously in the first half when Gareth Bale's deflected effort looped into the area and was diverted past the stranded goalkeeper by the oblivious Pavlo Pashayev.

Azerbaijan were back on level terms just before the hour, as Neil Taylor gifted possession to Ramil Sheydaev and he fed Mahir Emreli, who slotted home on the rebound after Wayne Hennessey haplessly fumbled the initial tame effort right back to the forward.

Luckily for Wales, Bale – who was otherwise disappointing – nodded in six minutes from time to secure the win.

Wales fans have been extremely critical of Giggs in recent months, though he looked to calm those concerned by Friday's performance, highlighting Croatia's identical result.

"[Bale's goal] was huge – we needed that win no matter how we got it," Giggs said. "Obviously we wanted to play well, score lots of goals, but sometimes football is like that.

"You have to show character. The lads worked hard. It's the same score Croatia beat Azerbaijan by at home, so they're not an easy team to play against, they're good on the counter.

"We had no excuses tonight and we haven't going forward. We need to play better, show the same character, but be better on the ball."

Despite their dominance, Wales struggled to carve out clear-cut chances and break their visitors down but Giggs insists he knows what went wrong.

"In the first half we just didn't stick to the plan," Giggs added. "When we did [stick to the plan], we looked dangerous.

"We created chances, space, but we were in too much of a hurry to get up the pitch instead of making Azerbaijan run.

"When we made them run, moved the ball quickly, that was when the spaces appeared. There were too many players who weren't on form, but we worked hard, I can never fault the way they worked, the character they've shown, because it's not easy. I'm delighted with the character shown."

The result leaves Wales third in Group E, three points behind top two Hungary and Croatia.

Gareth Bale scored a late winner to keep Wales' Euro 2020 qualification hopes very much alive with a 2-1 triumph over Azerbaijan in Cardiff on Friday.

Ryan Giggs' men looked to be heading for a thoroughly underwhelming stalemate, but Bale – who was otherwise poor – came up trumps six minutes from time to keep them in the hunt in Group E.

Wales were dominant in the first half and played the ball around nicely, though clear-cut chances were hard to come by, with the hosts having to rely on a freak Pavlo Pashayev own goal to take the lead.

They had similar issues after the break and a costly combination of errors from Neil Taylor and Wayne Hennessey allowed Mahir Emreli to equalise, but Bale - back among the goals at club level with Real Madrid - nodded in towards the end to rescue Giggs' side.

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