It is crunch time for the Welsh side over the upcoming weeks. After an unexpected 6 Nations triumph, the trophy retained with a caretaker manager and the biggest winning margin over their greatest rivals from across the bridge, these tests are the first the full squad has had together since that famous day in Cardiff.
Of course, there was some rugby played elsewhere this summer, and this is perhaps why the expectations will be higher than usual this autumn. The British & Irish Lions series win in Australia – led by the Welsh national coach with the team that orchestrated the final test demolition of the Aussies being two-thirds Welsh, supporters will be hoping that this experience of winning a test series in the Southern Hemisphere will finally give these players the belief and momentum needed in order to mix it with the best in the world and come out on top.
With all the excitement created by the Lions this summer, it’s easy to forget that Wales’ last result was a defeat to Japan, with the ‘development’ side draw the test series in the Far East. There are some players who went on that tour who will be itching to set the record straight and impress Warren Gatland for the first time.
This brings us on nicely to the squad for the Autumn Internationals. Three uncapped players were named in the 35-man squad: Ospreys winger Eli Walker, Scarlets nine Rhodri Williams and Blues centre Cory Allen. It will be interesting to see if these players will get their opportunity, but you have to think that barring injuries, the Tonga test may be the only opportunity to see this trio in action. Having the experience within a senior national set-up is beneficial for their development, however.
In the front row, Gethin Jenkins returns to the fold following his early departure from the Lions Tour. The Pontypridd born prop will likely be reunited yet again with his partner-in-propping – Adam Jones. The partnership has been a mainstay of the Welsh side for so many years, and is as formidable as it’s ever been, despite the partnership entering its autumnal years. With Paul James, Ryan Bevington, Scott Andrews and Aaron Jarvis all in the squad, the pressure will be on Jenkins and Jones to perform at their highest levels, as there are physical and experienced players waiting in the wings.
At hooker, Lions test starter Richard Hibbard is in the box seat after his typically abrasive and committed displays in Australia impressed many. However, his throwing into the line out can let him down at times, but this aspect of his game did improve as the tour progressed. Ken Owens will be snapping at his heels, and Gatland has the option of changing the emphasis by bringing him off the bench, substituting Hibbard’s powerful style for Owens’ more agile movement around the park, which can be particularly effective in the last quarter.
In the second row, Wales have an abundance of experience to call upon, something that may have been lacking at times in the past. Lions captain for the third test Alun Wyn Jones will surely start, having had a wonderful tour, and his passion for the game and his country make him irreplaceable. A good ball carrier and line-out option, he is the stand-out Welsh lock at this moment in time. His partner for the second row may be a little more ‘up-for-grabs’ – but Ian Evans has to be in pole position. He played very well over the summer and his form has continued from there. Luke Charteris has returned from injury, Bradley Davies captained Wales in Japan and has made the squad too. Finally, Andrew Coombs deservedly retains his place in the international set-up. He may be relatively inexperienced, but his performances in the Six Nations were brilliant, and he deserves his chance to represent his country again.
If there’s strength in depth in the second row, the back-row could be among the finest in world rugby at this moment. Lydiate, Warburton, Faletau, Tipuric, Ryan Jones – this is probably the most difficult position to predict. Sam Warburton has been confirmed as skipper by Gatland after successfully captaining the Lions squad but that doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed a starting place. Gatland will likely go with Lydiate and Warburton on the flanks and Faletau at eight to start, with Tipuric injecting some pace and flair off the bench. Lydiate’s scything tackling is something that is often overlooked in the overall context of the game but his defensive performance in the third test in Sydney was outstanding, nullifying the Australians and giving the Lions are platform which they excelled upon.
In the backs, Mike Phillips will again be considered favourite at scrum half, but with his discipline again failing him at Bayonne, Gatland may see Lloyd Williams as a less controversial pick. Phillips is a big game player and will probably start against South Africa and Australia, but Lloyd and Rhodri Williams may stake claims for the Argentina and Tonga tests.
Fly-half selection is intriguing, as for the first time for a while, Gatland will have a decision to make. Rhys Priestland is back from injury and has been turning in decent performances for his regional side, whereas Dan Biggar has possession of the shirt and played brilliantly in the 6 Nations. Add in the young pretender Rhys Patchell, and the recall of James Hook (although that will probably be for centre & full back cover rather than fly half), then Gatland has options at 10 that Wales hasn’t had since the retirement of Stephen Jones.
With Jamie Roberts unavailable due to injury, the Scarlets centre partnership of Jon Davies and Scott Williams appears to pick itself. Williams has always provided reliable cover at centre when Roberts/Davies have been unable to play, so he deserves his chance to start. Davies managed to dislodge Brian O’Driscoll from the Lions Test side, which is testament to how well he is playing and how highly Gatland rates him. Hook, Allen and Owen Williams are all option, but they will be solely for cover for the big games.
With another Lion, Alex Cuthbert, absent on the wing, it appears to be George North plus one other. Eli Walker and Liam Williams are the contenders, and it’ll be interesting who is selected. I think it’ll be Walker, a debutant playing against a big side on his debut a la North could be repeated. A criticism of this squad though is how light Wales are on wingers, and I am surprised not to see the like of Harry Robinson, Lee Byrne and Jordan Williams in there to provider cover in the back line. One option could be playing Halfpenny on the wing and Hook/Williams at 15, but Halfpenny has developed into one of the finest counter-attacking and tactical full backs on the planet, and I feel his influence on the game will be unnecessarily diminished should he be farmed out on the wing.
This is a strong looking Welsh squad, and despite the notable absentees of Roberts and Cuthbert, it’s pretty much what Gatland would’ve wanted. Now is the perfect time to take a southern hemisphere scalp. They’ve got the players, the coach and now the experience; the only thing they haven’t got this time round, is an excuse!
I feel Wales will beat Australia, Argentina and Tonga, with my brain and heart clashing over the South Africa result. 3 out of 4 wins must be the realistic aim for Gatland – it is time for Wales to make the step-up.
By Rhys Hopkins