Wales coach Iestyn Harris is looking forward to seeing his “authentic” Welsh team make their mark in the World Cup, starting with the opening day clash with Italy.
Harris was in the Wales team that reached the semi-finals in 1995 and 2000 but admits that short-lived success was largely down to an unhealthy reliance on rugby union converts like Paul Moriarty, John Devereux, Jonathan Davies and Scott Gibbs.
The national rugby league team was left threadbare when the conversions dried up after rugby union went professional and Wales’ fortunes hit rock bottom when they failed to qualify for the last World Cup in 2008.
Since then, however, strong foundations have been laid and Harris has been able to call on eight Welsh-born players for his World Cup campaign, which gets under way in Cardiff today against an Italian team comprising entirely of Australian-born players.
“It’s 13 years since Wales were last in a World Cup and it’s a different type of group,” said the ex-Leeds Rhinos and Bradford Bulls stand-off.
“What we have now is a lot of home-grown talent that’s come through the system. There’s a real sense of authenticity about the squad.
“I played in ‘95 and 2000 and the unfortunate thing about those periods is it was very top heavy. Under the surface you were scratching around, there was very little there.
“You can’t say that now about Wales rugby league. There are lots of youngsters playing the game and wanting to come into the systems like Wigan and Warrington.
“If you look underneath Wales rugby league nationally, there’s a pool of maybe 150 players playing the game at a very good standard. We’re very comfortable with where we are as a nation at this moment in time.
“Our 16s, 18s and 20s are extremely strong and our target is that, by the 2017 World Cup, we’ve a pool of 60 to 100 competitive players at the top level. It’s a high target but we’re on track.”
Harris feels his current crop have a glorious opportunity to raise the profile of the game still further but knows they face a difficult hurdle against the Azzurri, who shocked England last Saturday.
“Being at the Millennium Stadium is a great opportunity,” he added. “We’re expecting a big following of Welsh support and, if we can hold our end up and get the right result, then we’ll gain some momentum. But it’s a formidale task against a quality Italy side.”