Amidst the turmoil currently surrounding Welsh rugby, Warren Gatland has today named his squad for this year’s Six Nations. As is customary at The Coal Face, no Gatland squad announcement is complete without a thorough dissection of it, and we’ll get to that, but first, here’s the squad:
FORWARDS: Paul James, Gethin Jenkins, Ryan Bevington, Richard Hibbard, Ken Owens, Emyr Phillips, Adam Jones, Samson Lee, Rhodri Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris, Ian Evans, Andrew Coombs, Ryan Jones, Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton (c), Toby Faletau, Dan Lydiate, Aaron Shingler.
BACKS: Rhodri Williams, Mike Phillips, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, Rhys Priestland, James Hook, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Scott Williams, Alex Cuthbert, George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams.
My first action upon reading this squad was to ponder whether Warren Gatland has run out of ideas. This squad is so ‘unrevolutionary’ – if that’s a word – that it is difficult to read to the end of it without feeling a little fatigued.
The big news is that every player he has picked has already been capped, and whilst to some that may seem like a positive thing (it’s a more experienced squad etc etc); to me it’s thoroughly depressing.
With the World Cup around 21 months away, Gatland should now be building for then. We did a fantastic job last time, and we could have a fantastic chance at really going for it in 2015. That building process needs to start now, and to me, the fact that Gatland will only name one more Six Nations squad before we do battle in the World Cup indicates that the likelihood of the Kiwi bringing in any new players into the first team between now and then is slim.
So why is that a problem, you might ask? I’ll tell you why. Because the current players we have, playing in the style we are currently playing in, will not win the World Cup. No chance. Sure, they can dominate the Six Nations as we have done over the last five years, but they aren’t going to win the biggest tournament in the world.
These players, playing in this gameplan have shown time and time again that unless we change what we are doing, we cannot beat the southern hemisphere teams. In Gatland’s tenure we have beaten a southern hemisphere side only once. Since that win, in 2008, we have become an even more one-dimensional side, and while this way of playing has yielded significant success in the north; it has been proved beyond any doubt to be an unsatisfactory way of winning against the southern hemisphere.
My line of thinking was cemented in December as yet again we came up short against South Africa and Australia. To me, the way forward was crystal clear. We must experiment with our gameplan and we must bring in some more creative players. This squad selection is a sad testament to the fact that Gatland and I do not agree. The Kiwi may wonder why there was a muted reception to the fact that he had signed a contract until 2019. I believe that my concerns (shared by plenty of others) more than account for that muted reception.
Gatland goes for what he knows
In my mind, the ninth loss on the bounce to Australia proved conclusively that we need to change our approach. Not just a tweak, but a wholesale change. Most people I spoke to were in agreement.
This Welsh team has come to be defined by their rock solid defensive wall, their tactical kicking and their battering rams. The whole world knows what they’re going to do; it’s just that most of the world can’t stop it. Crucially though, three teams can. Time and time again.
Cast your eye down that list of players and look for a player that exhibits genuine creativity. Look for a player who is able to create something out of nothing. Look for a player who can pass with distance and accuracy. Look for a player who can sidestep his way out of trouble. Look for a player with a real rugby brain.
You might have spotted a precious few players, but you can bet your bottom dollar that they won’t be starting. We all know that barring injury, this will be the team that plays against Italy:
1. Gethin Jenkins 2. Richard Hibbard 3. Adam Jones 4. Alun-Wyn Jones 6. Dan Lydiate 7. Sam Warburton 8. Toby Faletau 9. Mike Phillips 10. Dan Biggar/Rhys Priestland 11. George North 12. Jamie Roberts 13. Scott Williams 14. Alex Cuthbert 15. Leigh Halfpenny
This is ostensibly the side that has brought us considerable northern hemisphere success and zero southern hemisphere success. Gatland has clearly gone for what he knows, but in doing so, he has made it clear that he does not currently have further ambition for this side. Either that, or he is deluded into thinking that his brand of bish bash bosh is suddenly going to work against one of the big three. Sorry Warren it’s not.
And so to the squad
Rant over. Well, not quite. I’ve already outlined that I believe the Gatland ideology has now become one-dimensional and unambitious, but now that we’ve got this squad, let’s take a look at it in a bit more detail:
1) Why has he picked so many injured players without replacements?
I suppose – given how crucial they are to the gameplan – it is understandable that Gatland has picked Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies despite them both being injured. Gatland clearly hopes to have Roberts available to him for the opening game, and Davies for the final three.
But what I really can’t understand is why on earth there isn’t more cover for them. Foxy will definitely miss the first game, but yet Gatland has only named three centres (four if you include Hook who hasn’t played there in about 18 months). Not picking players who can back Roberts and Davies up only increases the pressure on them to get fit. This could lead to them being rushed back and result in further injuries.
Obviously there aren’t currently a lot of centres available, and it may be that the management are planning to push North into the middle, but if that’s the case, why aren’t there more wingers in the squad?
2) Gatland’s favourites
Stretching back right to the beginning of his tenure, Gatland has often been accused of not picking on form. At times this has been positive as he has stuck by players who weren’t playing well and brought them through a bad patch (i.e. Mike Phillips). At other times, it has been highly negative (i.e. Andy Powell, Ryan Jones, Gareth Cooper, Lee Byrne, Rhys Priestland, Jonathan Thomas).
Nothing has changed this year. The form flanker in Wales has been Sam Lewis and there is no place for him. Arguably one of the worst performing flankers has been Dan Lydiate; and yet his position is safe as houses. Predictable? Yes. Disappointing? Even more so.
3) Rhys Webb wins his place back
I’ll admit to being pleased about the fact that Webb has regained a place in the squad, after a difficult year for the Bridgend-born nine. However, the likelihood of him getting any significant gametime is slim.
Is it harsh on Lloyd Williams? Yes, probably. Let’s hope that Lloyd can use this omission as a springboard to up his level of performance; as the scrum half hasn’t really progressed much in the last year or so.
4) Will James Hook play a bit part role once again?
This is probably the thing that I’m most interested in ascertaining. In my opinion, despite his faults, Hooky is the kind of player we need if we are to have any chance of toppling the southern hemisphere giants. Will he be given more of a role? If not, what is the point in him traipsing over from France?
I’m sorry for the downbeat nature of this article, but I really cannot say that I’m inspired by this squad. It looks to me like a squad picked to play the bog standard Welsh gameplan that is not good enough to beat the southern hemisphere. After several years of getting used to facing it, it may not even be good enough to beat the north anymore.
Obviously I can’t wait for the tournament to begin, and I’m more than excited about seeing our boys take to the field, but I just can’t help but feel we’ve hit a glass ceiling that Gatland is resolutely ignoring. Am I right? Should I be more optimistic? Let us know below.