Much of the focus recently has been on England’s build up to the Autumn Internationals, but James Bass has been keeping an eye on the Welsh squad as they prepare for their own series of testing games.
As an Englishman, I would be lying if I said I didn’t fear the current Welsh setup, and I am sure I am not alone. Despite being ranked 8th in the current IRB rankings, with three of their four opponents this autumn sitting higher in the table (Argentina, Australia, New Zealand), the Welsh have serious firepower waiting to be unleashed.
Having contributed 13 players to this year’s exhilarating Lions tour, 10 of whom have been named for November’s tests, the Welsh set up is now vastly more experienced than it was last autumn. Jamie Roberts gained man of the series in South Africa; Stephen Jones showed composure and decision in the backline; and James Hook, Alun Wyn Jones, Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, also showed they were deserving of a tour place. Experience against the World Champions in their own backyard has undoubtedly given the Red Dragons a welcome boost, and may give them an edge over the big boys from the Southern Hemisphere.
Last Saturday’s epic Magners League confrontation between the Ospreys and Cardiff was enough to whet the appetite of any Welsh rugby fan, who may have been harbouring some unwelcome doubts about next month’s clashes. Some strong performances from key players such as the ever-present Martyn Williams and the smaller one, Shane, were exciting to see, as were moments of class from the likes of Roberts and Leigh Halfpenny, giving yet more food for thought.
But as with every team in International rugby, great players are only useful if fit, and Wales are unfortunately no exception this year with half a dozen key names succumbing to injury. Lock Ian Evans has suffered a chest injury putting him out for two months, John Yapp is out with a torn bicep, and Jones is recovering after shoulder surgery. Moreover, Lions sensations Mike Phillips and Lee Byrne have also been ruled out following ankle and foot injuries, and Jonathan Thomas has been cited and will miss the first match against New Zealand, causing yet more problems for Warren Gatland.
Yet although injuries will play on the mind of the New Zealander, the 2005 and 2008 Grand Slam champions are lucky enough to boast arguably the greatest strength in depth of any team in Europe, enabling the team to be reshaped with relative ease. Dwayne Peel will step in for Phillips, but with so many options for Lee Byrne, which is right? Jamie Roberts started out his career at 15, but moving him from 12 would be a waste in my eyes – Dan Evans of the Scarlets is a likely replacement, or Hook could move to the back, but Gareth Owen and Jason Tovey have surely also been considered.
Whatever the decision made by Gatland, the XV chosen to represent their country in November will be of the highest calibre, and with the players on offer it is almost enough to make an Englishman shake in his boots, but let’s hope that come November it will be the Ozzies, Kiwis and Pumas doing the shuddering.
By James Bass