Following the fantastic victory for the Lions this summer, Northern Hemisphere rugby – and Welsh rugby in particular – is at a crossroads. Despite a fantastic 41-16 victory for the Lions in which 11 Welshmen starred, Wales have singularly failed to match up to the Southern Hemisphere teams for far too long.
We have to cast our minds back 5 years to remember the last time Wales engineered a SH scalp, and despite the 3 Six Nations titles Warren Gatland has masterminded, a scalp is what is most desperately needed now. Unless a NH side is astoundingly lucky, the World Cup cannot be won without beating a SH side; and if Wales reach the 2015 showpiece tournament without another couple of SH victories under their belt, the chances of them emerging as World Cup winners appears remote.
Make no mistake, these Autumn Internationals are important. Beating Australia and/or South Africa would show the rugby world that Wales are a team to be feared, and a team that have a genuine chance of winning the Rugby World Cup. Lose to them both once again, and the Lions will be viewed as either a fluke, or an achievement only possible with the participation of other nations.
Yesterday Warren Gatland announced the squad that will take part in this year’s Autumn Internationals. It contains a few surprises and a few omissions that are certainly worthy of further consideration and debate. First and foremost, let’s take a look at the squad:
Forwards: Scott Andrews (Cardiff Blues), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Aaron Jarvis (Ospreys), Paul James (Bath), Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Ryan Bevington (Ospreys), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Emyr Phillips (Scarlets), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Luke Charteris (Perpignan), Ian Evans (Ospreys), Bradley Davies (Cardiff Blues), Andrew Coombs (Dragons), Ryan Jones (Ospreys), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Sam Warburton (capt, Cardiff Blues), Toby Faletau (Dragons), Dan Lydiate (Racing Metro).
Backs: Rhodri Williams (Scarlets), Mike Phillips (Bayonne), Lloyd Williams (Cardiff Blues), Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Rhys Patchell (Cardiff Blues), Rhys Priestland (Scarlets), Jon Davies (Scarlets), Ashley Beck (Ospreys), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Cory Allen (Cardiff Blues), Owen Williams (Cardiff Blues), James Hook (Perpignan), George North (Northampton Saints), Eli Walker (Ospreys), Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), Liam Williams (Scarlets).
There are three uncapped players in Gatland’s 35-man squad: Rhodri Williams, Cory Allen and Eli Walker. Rhodri Williams is perhaps the biggest surprise of the three, and to be honest I don’t think he’s ready. Williams is a scrum half in the true Welsh mould, but he’s highly inexperienced, and I think it’s too early to know whether or not he’s even got what it takes to play international rugby.
This may seem slightly controversial, but I would much rather have seen the third scrum half place go to Sale Sharks’ number 9 Dwayne Peel. Clearly that was never going to happen as Peel has been out of favour for some time, but if Gatland was really picking on form, Peel would definitely be in contention. The 32-year old has been on fire for the Sharks; striking up a formidable partnership with Danny Cipriani and it would be fantastic to see him back in a Welsh shirt. Sadly, it’s unlikely to happen.
Both Cory Allen and Eli Walker have benefitted somewhat from injuries to other players, and with Jamie Roberts and Alex Cuthbert currently injured, they both get a chance. It’s unlikely that Allen will see any gametime, but Walker has a very decent shout of making the test team with the right wing spot currently vacant as a result of Cuthbert’s ankle problem.
The Hook debacle
Whilst James Hook makes a return to the Wales squad after being overlooked (sorry, “rested”) for the Japan tour, it’s clear that all is not right in terms of the utility back’s availability. Speaking to the BBC, Gatland indicated that Hook still does not have “full release” for Wales games and training, and consequently he is at a “disadvantage” as far as selection is concerned.
This issue is a difficult one. Personally, I think that the fact that Hook has barely played for Wales since the World Cup is a real tragedy. A player of his talent should be in every single match squad (at the very least), but unfortunately for Hooky, in recent years he’s had to be content with the occasional cameo off the bench. I do believe that it is unfair for Hook to be viewed less favourably than other players, simply because he plays in France, and ultimately, the player has been mismanaged by the Welsh coaching team.
However, failing to negotiate “full release” doesn’t exactly smack of a burning desire to play for Wales. Gatland indicated that George North’s contract at Northampton allows him to be released for exactly the same amount of time as the Welsh based players, and whilst the clause required in order to ensure that may have come at a personal cost to George, he clearly felt that his international career was important enough to ensure that he was available whenever he was required. On the other hand, Hooky has clearly prioritised club rugby over international rugby, and has paid the price.
I really hope that Hook gets a decent chunk of gametime this autumn, as it’s been too long since we saw him at his best for Wales. However, a new contract at Perpignan (presumably without “full release”) probably hints at Hook’s best Wales days being behind him.
The ten debate
As ever in Wales, probably the most contentious area of squad selection comes down to the 10’s that have been picked. Given that Gatland has gone for three specialist fly halves, it seems improbable that Hook will be considered at standoff, so really, there are only these three possibilities when it comes to who will play the role of controller this autumn.
The current incumbent is Dan Biggar, who sailed the ship in an effective if not entirely convincing way during this year’s Six Nations. No doubt Ospreys’ fans will believe that Dan should keep the 10 shirt, but personally, I don’t believe that he’s got what it takes when it really matters.
Whenever people talk about Biggar, they’re always pointing forward to his performances in the RaboDirect and the Magners, but using these domestic performances as a barometer for his suitability to play 10 for Wales is a mistake. Biggar has never excelled in a Wales shirt, and the fact is that the jump between regional and international rugby is huge. Some players just aren’t ever going to be true international quality, and in his heart of hearts I think Warren Gatland knows that Biggar isn’t. Those who question this assertion must ask themselves why the Kiwi decided not to pick Biggar for the Lions tour, especially in the wake of the Llangennith product’s role in Wales’ Six Nations win. That Gatland chose to play Stuart Hogg at standoff in several tour games rather than include a third 10 like Biggar is as good an indicator as any that he just doesn’t regard Biggar as up to it.
With this in mind, I fully expect Gatland to offer Rhys Priestland a return from the wilderness. Priestland has had a difficult couple of years since the World Cup, and his confidence definitely took a big knock. However, with Priestland, the old adage is most certainly true: form is temporary, class is permanent. Priestland was phenomenal against Harlequins for the Scarlets, and his ability to run, pass and kick means that at least for now, he is Wales’ only realistic option at fly half.
The time may well come for the young pretender Rhys Patchell, but for now, he is too raw to be thrown into games against the SH sides. That’s not to say that I’m not impressed with Patchell – his kicking from hand being particularly exceptional – but for me, he’s just not ready yet.
Lee doesn’t believe that he’s byrned out
Perhaps one of the most interesting issues to come out of the squad selection is Lee Byrne’s reaction to the news that he had been omitted. While most of us would not have even raised an eyebrow at Byrne’s omission, the former Wales fullback clearly believes that he deserves to be in the side. He tweeted:
“Gutted to be overlooked by wales again obviously squad was picked on blooding players for WC not on form or playing ability. #wtf”
Let’s take a second to consider what Lee has to say:
In terms of the fullbacks that have been included, Gatland has unsurprisingly opted to include the Lions Man of the Series and 2013 Six Nations Player of the Tournament Leigh Halfpenny, a man who incidentally is a shoo in for the World Player of the Year award. Not quite sure that picking Halfpenny can be described as ‘blooding a player’ or as picking a player not ‘on form or playing ability’.
Perhaps he means Liam Williams. Although that doesn’t make much sense as Williams has been on fire for the Scarlets and is one of the most devastating counter attackers in the game at the moment.
Maybe he means James Hook. Although that doesn’t make much sense either, as Hooky is now 28, has frequently played fullback for both club and country and offers incredibly versatility in that he can play 10, 12 and 13 as well as 15. He’s in great form for Perpignan, and also offers a reliable goalkicking option.
For me it’s the ‘#wtf’ hashtag that really amuses me. If you cast your eye over Byrne’s Twitter feed, you’ll find him desperately backtracking, suggesting that he wasn’t having a go at anyone, was merely surmising as to the method of squad selection. Here’s a tip Lee, polite musings on these sorts of subjects do not usually end with a rude metadata tag. Just a thought.
Has Gatland not learnt his lesson?
It was worrying to hear Gatland suggest following the squad announcement that Wales may look to play some of the less experienced players against Tonga. For his entire tenure, this has not worked. Whenever he has chosen to play some fringe players against a ‘lesser’ nation, we have struggled, and it’s just not worth it. (And by the way, I’m not counting Namibia in the World Cup – they don’t even count as a ‘lesser nation’).
My thinking on this matter is that winning breeds confidence. Playing your best side and smashing the opposition is thoroughly beneficial in that it increases confidence as well as allowing you to try out set moves and play the game as you want it to be played. I really hope Gats realises this and puts out a team to really thump Tonga. You might ask when the younger players will get their chance if not in games like this, and my answer is, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. If you’re only good enough to play against Tonga, then you’re not really what we’re looking for sorry. Ruthless maybe, but effective, definitely. This sort of selection raises the bar and forces players to better themselves to get into the team, rather than waiting for a Mickey Mouse game every autumn.
Can we get a Southern Hemisphere scalp?
If we don’t beat Australia, we should be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves. They are there for the taking. If the Lions (containing 10 Welsh starters) can do it, then we can do it. No excuses this time.
Do you agree with what I’ve said? Got anything else you want to say? Please, please let us know in the comments box below.