The team to play South Africa

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.

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7 Responses to The team to play South Africa

  1. Alexis Hare says:

    It’s worth noting that Priestland effectively admitted last year after the New Zealand game that he was suffering with depression probably not helped by the amount of people booing him when his name was called out in the stadium!!! Anyone who is criticising his being picked for Saturday has not watched regional rugby where he has been playing magnificently. Yes, I feel sorry for Biggar after his 6N perfornmance but Gatland has always said that he will pick on current and not previous form and Priestland is the in-form player out of the 2.

    Good team though all in all and one that can definitely bring it to the Boks!!!!!!!!!

  2. NDB says:

    Great article. The 2 most important things you said…

    1) “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.” (PAINFULLY OBVIOUS)

    2) “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.” HOPE THE WELSH FANS IN THE STADIUM ARE CLEVER ENOUGH TO REALISE THIS.

    One criticism – I think to say “…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…” is to do Andrew Coombs a massive disservice. He’s been immense again so far this season.

    • woodster says:

      Fair point about Coombs, but let me qualify my thoughts in that regard.

      I’m a massive fan of Coombs but if I’m honest, I don’t think he’s quite international standard at lock. For me he’s a little bit too short, and doesn’t quite have the same presence as someone like Bradley Davies. I think we were all bowled over by how well Coombsy performed in the Six Nations, but I think at the same time, we have to be realistic about a player’s quality. Davies can stand toe-to-toe with the biggest of the South Africa locks, I’m not so sure Coombsy can.

  3. Charlie says:

    Overall I like the look of this side. We’ve had a good cohort of players fit in the build-up and some in-form back up where there are injuries. I didn’t feel as nervous as I have done in the past when I saw the squad, but I’m sure the first rolling maul on Saturday will reintroduce that nervous tension.

    This game might have suited Coombs (who enjoys the abrasive aspects of the game), but I can understand Gatland and co opting for a more experienced player.

    Bradley Davies at his best is a handful He’s a player who is capable of some really impressive work, and some really anonymous days. I’d settle for somewhere in the middle more often, but that might not be enough against the Boks. The second-row pair looks class on paper, if both of them have a top day then we just might get enough change out of a seriously good SA pack.

    Walker needs to come through what is likely to be a thorough examination of his defence, and Priestland and Davies both need to find international form fast. I’m a big fan of Priestland, and he’s looking good for the Scarlets. But the Boks will be working on him on Saturday, and how he responds to a setback or two under pressure could have implications way beyond this autumn. I wish him nothing but the best of luck. There’s a lot to admire about this guy, who came from nowhere to suddenly look like the missing cog in the machine.

    On a side note, I really feel for Biggar. Gatland seems to believe uncertainty is a crucial training tool for fly-halves.
    However my concerns are more about the long-term impact on the player, rather than on our chances of winning on Saturday. They’ve picked a side to win a match. It’s not radical, or cuddly.

  4. Hywel Roberts says:

    Not much to argue with here really. I don’t think Hook will get on unless there are injuries. Gatland hasn’t really trusted him with anything since the World Cup. Agree with NDB that Coombs is very unlucky, another who had such a good 6N.

    Although I did want to see Biggar start I will of course be behind Priestland all the way. I think he did just go through a very rough patch, and he’s been playing fantastically all season. I’m a Scarlets fan and have made it down to PyS a couple of times and he is looking very good. I just don’t think Biggar did anything wrong really. The tour to Japan I think was just run very poorly and not enough respect was given to the opposition. The team looked poorly drilled all round and don’t think it’s fair to blame any individuals for the debacle that followed.

    One question I thought of, has Priestland ever bee subjected to those awful Friday night games in the middle of the autumn series? Don’t think he has, and Biggar’s played in about 5 I think! They really are demoralising and no one comes out of them looking good! If Priestland hasn’t it just shows that he’s been fast-tracked to the top in a way that poor Biggar hasn’t.

    Anyway, fully behind the boys! Cannot wait for this!! Cymru am byth!!

  5. Lee Hier says:

    Great article again, not alot to say really. Hit the nail on the head.
    We really need big games from Bradley Davies and Gethin Jenkins. Their not on form at the moment so we need them to step up again. There could be arguments to bring in Paul James and Andrew Coombs as they are playing well for their clubs.

    I’ve not been watching any Welsh regions play for 7 months now as Im living in Australia for a few months. So I haven’t had the chance to see how they’re playing, but I’ve heard that the Ospreys pack have struggled a little with the new scrum laws. Any truth in that? If so then that’s a worrying thought because that’s where we need to win this game. If our forwards don’t produce the goods then we’ll probably get battered, and I fear for Priestland then because there’ll be alot of idiots who get on his back because we went backwards!

  6. DW GW says:

    Not going to say anything but Great Article

    Fully agree about Priestland – Biggar is in form, but RP was superb against Harlequins.

    Just wish we played the Aussies first to get up to speed – the Bok are in great form, and we will need a perfect performance on Saturday.

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