Having returned from another successful Lions tour, coach Warren Gatland returns to Wales duties looking to pick up some momentum in what has been something of an indifferent year for the Welsh national side. A poor Six Nations was followed by an impressive summer tour against the Pacific Islands teams, and with a number of experienced players returning from Lions duty to join the youngsters who performed so well in the summer, many Welsh supporters are cautiously optimistic ahead of an autumn series that takes in games against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa. With that in mind here are some of the big talking points from Tuesday’s squad announcement…
Looking to Japan
Two years out from the big kick-off in Japan and with the Lions tour been and gone this summer, the focus within international rugby has shifted to building ahead of the World Cup. With that in mind it is perhaps unsurprising that the Welsh squad has a distinctively fresh feel to it with a number of young uncapped players brought into the squad. With youngsters Seb Davies, Adam Beard and Steff Evans all winning their first caps in the summer against the Pacific Islands nations, the uncapped trio of Elliot Dee, Leon Brown and Owen Watkin have also been brought in to add more youthful exuberance to the squad. With all three of Dee, Brown and Watkin under the age of 24 their game-time this autumn may be limited by the presence of more experienced internationals, however now is the time for Gatland and his coaches to blood these young players and see whether they can handle the rigours of test rugby.
End of the road for some familiar faces?
The flip side of bringing in more young players with a future World Cup in mind is what to do with those coming towards the end of their careers. Arguably the biggest surprise to come from Tuesday’s squad announcement was not those included but rather those not included, with the experienced trio of Gethin Jenkins, Luke Charteris and Jamie Roberts missing out. Boasting nearly 300 international caps between them, the three players have been regulars in Warren Gatland’s Wales squads overt the last ten years and have been influential in much of the success the national side have enjoyed under Gatland’s reign. At the ages of 34 and 30 respectively, Charteris and Roberts may still be playing first-team rugby with their clubs but with the World Cup still two years away the Welsh coaches must look to the future, whilst although injury may have played a significant role in the decision to leave out record caps-holder Jenkins, at 37 years of age it is unlikely that the veteran Blues prop will be around for another shot at World Cup glory in 2019.
Form over reputation
If there has been one criticism levelled at New Zealander Gatland in his time in charge it has been that many supporters feel he has been too quick to pick players on reputation rather than form in the past. Gatland is a loyal coach who has at times shown a bit too much faith in underperforming players in the hope that they could rekindle the form that saw them selected in the first place. However his surprise decision as Lions coach to leave out Leigh Halfpenny and George North in favour of the in-form pair of Liam Williams and Elliot Daly paid dividends on the 2017 tour, with both Williams and Daly playing key roles in securing a hard-earned drawn series in New Zealand. This Welsh squad has a similar feel to it with Gatland naming young Ospreys centre Owen Watkin in his squad over the more experienced Scott Williams. Having finally usurped Jamie Roberts for the Welsh no.12 jersey last autumn many expected the Scarlets centre to go from strength to strength after years of impressing as something of a squad player at international level. Yet ironically since becoming first-choice Wales centre Williams has endured a gradual decline in form and still yet to hit top form this season it perhaps wasn’t as big as surprise as many initially thought when he was left out of the squad. With centre Watkin joining other in-form players such as Elliot Dee and Josh Navidi in the squad, Scott Williams’ omission is a stark reminder to some of the Welsh regulars that they can no longer rely on what they have achieved in the past and must earn their place like everybody else.
Change of style imminent?
Much of Wales’ success under Warren Gatland has been underpinned by a direct physical game-plan centred around size and power, yet with Gatland’s Lions side showing a more subtle creative edge in the summer the New Zealander seems to be adopting a similar style with Wales. The inclusion of creative playmakers such as Owen Williams and Owen Watkin in the centre over Jamie Roberts suggests this might be the case, yet the clearest indicator that Gatland wants his side to move with the times is the inclusion of the uncapped Ospreys flanker Sam Cross. Former Wales Sevens captain Cross only made his regional debut in Ospreys’ recent defeat to Saracens but caught the eye with a try-scoring performance that saw him contribute prominently in attack and defence with multiple carries, tackles and turnovers. Having been named DHL Impact Player of the World Series, an award in Sevens rugby that tallies up tackles, offloads, carries and line breaks, it evident that Cross fits the requirements for the modern-day flanker of being an ‘all-court’ player and with other athletic forwards such as Seb Davies and Aaron Shingler called up, Wales are clearly looking to play a more expansive style of rugby.
Race for the 12 jersey
Warren Gatland’s decision to leave both Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams out of the squad, has left him with a big call to make as to who partners Lions Player of the Series Jonathan Davies in midfield. Under the three-year residency rule, New Zealand-born Hadleigh Parkes has been included in the squad but will not be eligible until the final game against South Africa, leaving Ospreys’ Owen Watkin and Gloucester’s Owen Williams as the front-runners. 21-year-old Watkin is a highly-skilled centre with a strong passing game and has been one of the few bright spots in a dismal start to the season for the Ospreys, but he is a raw prospect and Gatland may be wary of chucking him in to start against Australia. At 25, former Scarlets and Leicester back Williams is a more likely option and is a gifted playmaker equally adept at both 10 and 12 where he excelled at Leicester before his move to Kingsholm this summer. England have had great success playing two fly-halves George Ford and Owen Farrell as a 10-12 axis, and it was no coincidence that the Lions looked far more creative in attack when Gatland chose to stick Ireland’s Jonny Sexton and Englishman Farrell together in tandem at 10 and 12 in the decisive second test in Wellington. Dan Biggar returned from that Lions tour with his reputation enhanced but playing alongside a more naturally creative player like Williams could relieve some of the pressure on him and allow him to play with more freedom knowing he has a strong playmaker outside him.
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