Wales Squad for Autumn Internationals 2013

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).

 New faces

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.

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6 Responses to Wales Squad for Autumn Internationals 2013

  1. DW GW says:

    Welcome Back!

    Good article – agree with most of it.
    Agree with you about 10 – its almost certainly got to be Priestland. Biggar is like a machine, which can be a good thing, but try to get him to vary a game (say chasing a crucial Heiniken match) and it just doesn’t happen. Priestland was genuinely impressive against Quins.
    As was Rhodri Williams – get that he is young, but he seemed to have the ‘something’; although many have tried and failed. (Rees, like Peel, seems to have been cast asunder for whatever reason).

    The others I worry about being ready are Eli Walker & Liam Williams. Not convinced on defence for either. Might Halfpenny (being the experienced member of the back 3) be asked to take wing, with Hook at full back. Perpingan have done fairly well with Hook there, and he drops into the line to switch things up. This could re-introduce the random factor to welsh 3/4’s play – something we’ve lost since S Williams retired, and that J Sexton was tasked with for the Lions.

    • woodster says:

      I agree with you, and I think that there is a chance that we could see Hook at 15. However, in my opinion it’s a regressive move as it doesn’t give us a chance to blood another winger. We can’t just rely on Cuthbert and North as there will definitely be occasions when one (or both) of them isn’t fit.

  2. Hywel says:

    The most worrying thing for me is what happens after Gatland goes. I think the natural assumption is that Howley will take over, so there’ll be some continuity. But Warren Gatland plays in a very specific way, which is power and getting over the gain line which relies on a very specific type of player. He picks and develops young players who suit his style. It works really well but if you don’t suit that style you don’t get in the squad. When after 2015 he goes and someone else comes in, even if it is Howley, they may want to play a different style. In that scenario you may have players who are smaller so weren’t picked by Gatland and who have missed out on two or three years of development because they weren’t big enough to play ‘Warrenball’. I suppose people I’d be thinking of are Matthew Morgan, Jordan Williams, to some extent Ashley Beck (he gets picked but doesn’t really get to play much). There could be a generation of great footballers like James Hook who could miss their chance. It doesn’t matter so much now because we have a golden generation who are doing great things, but that won’t always be the case.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. I was talking to Dwayne Peel in Edinburgh (happened to be staying in the same flats!) and we were discussing this at length. He thinks pretty much the same.

    Another things that’s worried me is that Gatland has said the Six Nations is more important than this series. For the first time in my life I don’t think that’s true. In terms of the WC, as you’ve mentioned in your article, we know we have the measure of the NH teams, but if we don’t get a scalp soon we might really struggle in the run up to 2015.

    • Charlie says:

      A good point about the future. Leaving aside my doubts about Howley, I think you’ve really nailed it with your point about Beck. I hope to be proved wrong but there is a lot of the James Hook about him at the moment, talented but doesn’t fit the mould, looking (mostly) good for his club but making no progress towards a starting slot. Gatland does have a certain template that players need to fit pretty closely, but that isn’t the only thing holding back more versatile players.
      If the regions were in great form, and promising players were learning winning habits they might be harder to ignore. Everyone looks better on the front foot. As it is, for a coach choosing a squad from four often indifferent teams (and a few Top 14 sides), playing it safe might make sense. It’s hard to hammer down the coach’s door when you’re playing in ‘ok’ side. Our problems as a rugby country run deeper than one coach’s approach.
      I suppose all teams face problems when a big, successful manager leaves. The striking thing is that some outstanding teams do keep delivering (Leinster, every All Black side I can recall) but they are very much exceptions to a rule.
      I don’t think Wales and Warren can see beyond the next World Cup in some ways, but I can’t honestly blame them. A World Cup in Europe, let alone next door, is bound to eclipse everything else. I’m not picking holes, I think you’re pretty much right. I’m just saying I can understand how we got where we are.

  3. Charlie says:

    Good stuff Woodster. I was pleasantly surprised to see R Williams in the squad ( given how very un-Phillips he can look at times), and Walker is overdue a chance. I think Liam Williams looks the part for Wales, by no means the finished article, but he seems to take the step up to test level in his stride, and that’s most of the battle.

    Let’s hope you’re right about Priestland. I think Wales’ approach only really works when you have a top , top fly half who has the patience and vision to switch tempo at the right points. Biggar can seem cramped in a Wales shirt at times. Although he kept things tight well v France in the 6n, before producing a try with his boot. A poor game, but he kept us in it.
    It’s hard to know either way, Priestland is only recently back given how lost he looked last year, I expect Gatland to re-introduce him cautiously. If only to give Biggar some sort of confidence vote, after what must have been a dispiriting summer. If it goes wrong we could have two 10s with confidence issues. If it goes well we could have two very handy options.

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