World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry believes Wales will be “one of the teams to beat” in the 2019 tournament in Japan in the autumn.
Former Wales coach Henry led New Zealand to 2011 success and they won it again under Steve Hansen in 2015.
“I think Wales have a good chance,” said Henry.
“It’s going to be a lot closer than it was in 2015 when New Zealand had a distinct edge. It will be a highly competitive World Cup.”
Henry coached Wales from 1998-2002 and departed with a record of 20 wins, a draw and 13 defeats.
His Welsh side were beaten by Australia in the 1999 World Cup quarter-finals.
Fellow New Zealander Warren Gatland guided Wales to fourth at the 2011 tournament – their second best World Cup finish – and the quarter-finals four years later.
Having seen Gatland’s charges win the 2019 Grand Slam, Henry says Wales “have proved they are the best side in Europe”.
Henry added: “Whether they can maintain that, I think they can.
“Ireland and England should be competitive and South Africa are improving.
“Hopefully the World Cup will galvanise the All Blacks into some improvements because they have not played that well in recent times or as they have done previously around the 2015 World Cup.
“It will be a very interesting tournament.”
Henry says Wales’ recent success – the Grand Slam was part of a 14-game winning run for the nation – “has been fabulous”.
Under Henry, Wales enjoyed a 10-match winning streak which was their previous record run.
“Warren has done a superb job,” added Henry.
“I actually texted him after they broke the record and said ‘could you please pass on the congratulations from the 1999 side to the 2019 one for beating our record’.
“He texted me back because we know each other pretty well and he was appreciative of the text.
“He was very complimentary about the character of the side and the personalities that make up the squad.
“He was very positive and I texted him again after the Six Nations following the Grand Slam, which was outstanding.”
Henry says Gatland’s record with Wales and the British and Irish Lions makes him a strong contender to eventually succeed him has New Zealand coach.
Henry was asked if he thinks Gatland will ever get the All Blacks job.
“It is highly probable,” he replied.
“He has proved to be one of the best coaches in the world. There are guys like Joe Schmidt (Ireland) and Dave Rennie (Glasgow Warriors) who are over there coaching who have done exceptional jobs who could also do a great job with the All Blacks.
“So there is a pretty competitive field right now, but Warren would be one of the front runners if he made himself available.”
Gatland steps down as Wales coach after the World Cup and will turn his attention to coaching the Lions for a third successive time when they tour South Africa in 2021.
Henry led the Lions to a 2-1 series defeat against Australia in 2001 while still Wales coach.
The Welsh Rugby Union gave Gatland lengthy sabbaticals for the 2013 win against the Wallabies and the 2017 drawn series in New Zealand.
Henry said: “I think they learned from my experience.
“I did both jobs at the same time and that was wrong and you learn from those things.
“He has done fabulously well and I was delighted for him when he toured New Zealand that his side was so competitive.”
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