Since the Six Nations came into existence, the only time Wales have managed a placing above fourth is in two grand slam winning campaigns. Warren Gatland was supposed to be the coach who would bring consistency and consolidation to Wales. Instead another injury crisis threatens to make this the most unpredictable championship in years for the men in red.
With less than two-weeks to go before Wales open their 2011 campaign against England, under the Millennium Stadium floodlights, Gatland has been left with a number of unanswered questions. A combination of injuries to key players coupled with less than spectacular showings by Welsh regions in the Heineken Cup has not been ideal preparation.
In certain respects the lack of depth to the pool of international-ready players available to Wales is of their own making. Gatland has spoken explicitly of his desire to focus on a core of twelve players ahead of the World Cup, a policy that has all too often seen selection irrespective of form or lack-of. Attempts to reinstate the Wales ‘A’ team in time to give the coach food for thought, prior to this year’s championship, failed to come to fruition, and as a consequence areas of selection remain up in the air.
Two injuries have seemingly blunted one of Wales’s key weapons, the scrum. Not only has Adam Jones established himself as a world class tight-head, but the lack of alternatives has left a major selection headache. Most recently, in 2009, Jones’ absence was filled by a makeshift solution in Paul James, a player normally accustomed to the number one shirt.
However with Gethin Jenkins also being ruled out of the Championship with a toe injury, a repeat of two years ago is likely, even if it destabilises the Welsh front-row. Having opted not to call up Wasps’ Ben Broster, a 28-year with a solid reputation in the Aviva Premiership, Gatland has instead plumped for two inexperienced tight-heads in the form of Cardiff Blues’ Scott Andrews and Ospreys’ Craig Mitchell. The former made his first Heineken Cup start against Edinburgh on Saturday evening, while the latter his only his third – in a defeat of Toulon earlier in the same day. Whomever Gatland opts to select, the Welsh front-row is now certain to prove much less of an attacking threat, as they try and compensate for the lack of a tight-head with a track record of substance even at regional level.
A lack of dynamism in the back row was very evident during the Autumn Internationals for Wales. Ryan Jones looked increasingly like a spent force – with his future test career now very likely to be in the second-row. Jonathan Thomas struggled to make any impact, and has been fortunate to make the squad again. A veteran Martyn Williams appears to be finished at test level. Discounting three mainstays of the Welsh back row has created a difficult vacuum for Gatland to fill.
The heir apparent to the Welsh number seven shirt, Sam Warbuton has yet to prove himself as anything other than a destructive openside. At blindside Dan Lydiate showed encouraging signs during the autumn, but offered little with ball in hand. Andy Powell, the only credible number eight alternative, has yet to find genuine consistency at test level, but his resurgence of form at club level offers hope.
Expecting prospects in the shape of Newport Gwent Dragons’ Toby Faletau and Scarlets’ Josh Turnbull will make the step up, which is a calculated gamble in light of some of their recent displays for their respective regions. With few standout candidates, Gatland has been left with a real predicament, as he attempts to find a healthy balance in the back-row.
Tom Shanklin’s sidelining is not as big a blow as it would have been in previous seasons. Whilst Wales lack credible outside centre options, the Cardiff Blues player has only been a shadow of the one who had the chance of a Lions tour cruelly stolen from him by injury. With no outside centre even on the periphery of Welsh selection it looks likely that Gatland will select James Hook in the Welsh number thirteen shirt. Despite lacking the physicality to play in midfield, Wales desperately need to accommodate the 25-year-old, due to the obvious creativity he brings, even if it comes at a defensive cost. Jamie Roberts’ return and the form of Jonathan Davies does present Gatland with an alternative centre pairing, should he wish to switch tactically.
Out wide Wales’s two first choice wings Leigh Halfpenny and Shane Williams have both struggled with injury, and match fitness remains a concern. But with the exception of the sidelined George North, no other wing is even remotely in the same class. At least with the inclusion of Rhys Priestland Wales have a credible full back option, should Lee Byrne continue to slide even further out of form.
Ultimately though Wales are entering a critical period in their World Cup build up, and to be faced with so many selection worries is hardly ideal preparation. But in reality no Welsh side has ever gone into World cup year on especially solid ground. England in Cardiff on the 4th February would however be a good time to start laying down some foundations.
Wales squad for the RBS Six Nations 2011:
Paul James (Ospreys), John Yapp (Blues), Craig Mitchell (Ospreys), Ryan Bevington (Ospreys), Scott Andrews (Blues), Matthew Rees (Scarlets, capt), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Bradley Davies (Blues), Ryan Jones (Ospreys), Sam Warburton (Blues), Jonathan Thomas (Ospreys), Andy Powell (Wasps), Josh Turnbull (Scarlets), Toby Faletau (Dragons), Dan Lydiate (Dragons)
Mike Phillips (Ospreys), Dwayne Peel (Sharks), Tavis Knoyle (Scarlets), Stephen Jones (Scarlets), Rhys Priestland (Scarlets), James Hook (Ospreys), Jamie Roberts (Blues), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Shane Williams (Ospreys), Morgan Stoddart (Scarlets), Leigh Halfpenny (Blues), Lee Byrne (Ospreys)
By Paul French @paulleofrench