Wales coach Waren Gatland has recently spoken of having twelve key players he plans to focus on ahead of the World Cup next year. As unfortunate as it is predictable, he will have to adapt his plans for the autumn internationals to cater for the absence of five of those key individuals.
The scarcity of options available to the Welsh management at full back have once more been highlighted by Lee Byrne’s injury leaving the squad lacking in a recognized full back. Essentially James Hook takes the role virtually by default. Harries and Czekaj have some experience at regional level of being makeshift number fifteens but neither possesses the experience or poise that Hook has, in order to make the switch at test level.
Out wide Shane Williams, even in the twilight of his career, has been in irresistible form of late, whilst Leigh Halfpenny’s withdrawal due to injury throws the right wing berth wide open. The question is whether Gatland will opt to continue Thomas Prydie’s rapid elevation to Welsh colours or look to a player with more experience of domestic rugby. Will Harries‘ early season form, in spite of being played out of position in a poorly performing side, may see him preferred to Prydie, as Wales look to offset the lack of back-three experience caused by Byrne’s absence.
Jamie Roberts absence leaves a massive void to be filled in midfield. With Hook’s likely positional switch, a new centre partnership is the only probable outcome and Tom Shanklin’s experience and regional form should see him recalled to a starting place. Unfortunately the 30-year-old is lacking a yard or two of pace, compared to the player he was prior to his sidelining through injury, so a switch to inside-centre is likely.
The other centre berth is more contentious. Andrew Bishop, a fringe player over the last few seasons, has been Mr. Dependable when called upon, and deserves a chance to establish himself. Jonathan Davies’ recent lack of action probably ends his chances of jumping up the pecking order, but his ability at the gain-line makes him an attractive option for bench duty at least.
It would be a bold move for Dan Biggar to be promoted to outside-half: the Ospreys prospect has blown hot and cold so far this season. Stephen Jones however remains a figure of consistency and offers the stability needed in a much changed three-quarter line. Mike Phillips is some way ahead of his nearest rivals for the number nine shirt, with either Richie Rees or Tavis Knoyle acting as bench cover until Dwayne Peel returns upon the international window opening fully for England-based players.
Injuries to both Ryan Jones and Rob McCusker have left Wales with few options, although Jonathan Thomas’ regional move to Number Eight will soften the blow somewhat. Having had a fairly anonymous start to his test career, I’d like to see Dan Lydiate will be given a chance to establish himself at blindside. Lydiate’s lack of experience is likely to re-open the door for Martyn Williams, at least in the opening test, as Gatland tries to strike a balance between youth and experience in the back row. Williams’s advancing years mean a rotation with Sam Warbuton throughout the month is highly likely.
The partnership between Bradley Davies and Alun Wyn-Jones will have another chance to develop. The other locking contenders perhaps offer some additional grunt up-front, but do not offer the dynamism of the current incumbents.
The one settled area for Wales. Provided they can keep fit Gethin Jenkins, Mattew Rees and Adam Jones are inked in as certain starters.
My Wales Starting XV
15. James Hook
14. Will Harries
13. Andrew Bishop
12. Tom Shanklin
11. Shane Williams
10. Stephen Jones
9. Mike Phillips
1. Gethin Jenkins
2. Matthew Rees
3. Adam Jones
4. Bradley Davies
5. Alun Wyn-Jones
6. Dan Lydiate
7. Martyn Williams
8. Jonathan Thomas
By Paul French (@paulfrugby)