Okay, I’m now officially excited. The team that will face South Africa on Saturday evening has been announced, and now I really, really cannot wait for us to battle the Boks.
Just in case you haven’t seen it yet, here are the players who will do battle on Saturday:
Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Eli Walker, Rhys Priestland, Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Bradley Davies, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton (captain), Toby Faletau.
Replacements: Ken Owens, Paul James, Scott Andrews, Luke Charteris, Justin Tipuric, Lloyd Williams, James Hook, Liam Williams.
Priestland gets the nod at 10
Probably the biggest talking point of the selection was around who Gatland would opt for in the crucial flyhalf role. Dan Biggar, James Hook, Rhys Patchell and Rhys Priestland were the four options, and there were certainly good arguments for including Biggar or Hook ahead of Priestland. As it is, Gatland has gone for what we all probably expected – the Scarlets 10 back in the role of the general.
A lot of people on Facebook were quite critical of this decision, with most thinking that Gatland should have opted for Biggar rather than Priestland. The reasoning behind this was the fact that Biggar was the incumbent, having played all 5 of games in this year’s Six Nations. However, this theory didn’t actually take into account the fact that Biggar has played two other games for Wales this year – an unimpressive and narrow win and a disastrous loss against Japan. Okay, so those performances were not all Biggar’s fault, but the fact still stands, when surrounded by less than good players, Biggar is also ‘less than good’. This is stark contrast to Priestland, who has frequently been fielded along with very mediocre players and still played out of his skin.
The other point that is worth making is that Biggar’s style doesn’t really work with the Welsh gameplan. Gatland’s gameplan relies on big runners punching holes and a 10 spreading the ball wide to make use of our powerful outside backs. The gameplan that Biggar is more comfortable with involves kicking to the corner, a strong set piece and accurate goalkicking. He does this effectively with the Ospreys, but for Wales, he’s more of a square peg in a round hole, whereas Priestland is made for the Welsh gameplan.
Understandably some people are concerned about whether Priestland has the minerals to cope with the battle against the Boks on Saturday. When he last featured in a Welsh shirt, he was suffering a real crisis in confidence, and there’s no doubt that it was severely affecting his performances. However, he looks to be a different player after a long enforced break, and I really hope he’s back to his best, as at his best he is most definitely the most effective 10 we’ve got. I’d urge all Welsh fans not to get on his back if it takes him a little while to get into his stride on Saturday, as a return to confidence for him is in all of our best interests.
Bradley in the boiler room
Following Ian Evans’ untimely injury, it was more or less a straight shoot out between Luke Charteris and Bradley Davies for the vacant second row shirt. Bradley has been given the nod, and I think this is a good shout. Bradley offers a ball-carrying bullishness that Charteris does not, and the combination of David and AWJ provides a good blend of athleticism and aggression.
Eli Walker makes his debut
Probably the most exciting selection is Ospreys flyer Eli Walker on the right wing. Walker has impressed us all for some time now, and with Alex Cuthbert unavailable through injury, Walker now gets his opportunity. This is perhaps a little harsh on someone like Liam Williams, who seemed to be the next in line for a back three position, but given that the Scarlet is primarily a fullback, I think it’s understandable.
I’m really excited to see Walker going forward, but I suspect I’m probably not alone in being slightly concerned about his defensive capabilities. South Africa have a number of impressive kickers, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see them opting for an aerial bombardment of the right wing on Saturday.
His defensive weaknesses notwithstanding, Walker has been brought in for one particular job: running. He is probably the Welsh qualified player most similar to Shane Williams, and he will be tasked with finding mismatches and using his elusive running ability to get in behind the Springboks. With that in mind, it is crucial that Wales use him. In the recent past, I’ve been critical about us failing to get the ball wide to our wingers enough, and it’s really important that we get Walker into the game. Otherwise, we’re just playing with a weak defender on the wing, as opposed to a weak defender who can win you the game if you give him the ball.
Hook makes the bench: will he get off it?
James Hook makes the squad once again, but once again it’s on the bench. It’s bizarre to think that only two and a half years ago, Gatland would do whatever he could to get Hook in the side, and now he’s having to make do with a place on the replacements bench. Is he a worse player than he was then? Absolutely not. Whilst the demise of Hook’s Wales career makes me pretty sad, I’m hopeful that the rest of it can be resurrected.
Previously when he’s been selected on the bench, Hooky has hardly been given any gametime at all, and I think that’s where the real mistake lies. Okay, so there’s no natural starting position for the player, but given his ability at 10, 12, 13 and 15, you would think it was definitely worth giving him at least 20 minutes a game. This autumn, I’d really like to see Hook’s talents utilised a bit more off the bench, as at the moment, they’re just being wasted. Hook can win the game with one step or dummy, and in games with tight margins against the Southern Hemisphere sides, that’s exactly what we need.
Is this team good enough to beat South Africa?
Make no mistake, South Africa are in very good form. Anyone who watched them in the Rugby Championship finale will have seen a team who are right at the peak of their powers, and it will be a very tough encounter. Nevertheless, I totally believe that Wales are capable of beating the Springboks. The last time we played them – in World Cup 2011 – we were a drop goal away from clinching victory, and arguably played better than them. We’re now more experienced and have tasted more success. If Wales are to be taken seriously in the build up to the 2015 World Cup, we simply must start beating the Southern Hemisphere sides. No excuses.