The moment we’ve all been waiting for is drawing near. Wales begin the defence of their Six Nations crown on Saturday; and following the squad announcement this morning, we now know the 23 men who will do battle with the Italians at the Millennium Stadium.
The selection has unearthed a number of talking points, but before we delve into Gatland’s team selection, let’s remind ourselves of the men chosen to represent us at the weekend:
BACKS. Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Scott Williams, Jamie Roberts, George North, Rhys Priestland, Mike Phillips.
FORWARDS. Paul James, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones (c), Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau.
REPLACEMENTS. Ken Owens, Ryan Bevington, Rhodri Jones, Andrew Coombs, Sam Warburton , Rhys Webb, James Hook, Liam Williams.
Sam on the bench
I guess the big news is the fact that Sam Warburton doesn’t make the starting lineup. Given that he hasn’t played since December it’s not a massive surprise to see the skipper confined to bench duty, but I believe his absence creates two interesting subplots:
1) Justin Tipuric now has a chance to truly make the number seven shirt his own. In the past, Tips has largely had to play second fiddle to Sam, but with Sam on the bench as back row cover, Tipuric has a real chance to stake his claim as the first choice seven.
2) Dan Lydiate is in the last chance saloon. Extremely underwhelming in the autumn, Lydiate’s move to France doesn’t seem to have gone to plan and his lack of match sharpness seemed to count against him during some lacklustre performances in November and December.
Whilst Warburton is on the bench for this game, the skipper will be back in the starting lineup against Ireland, and if Tipuric plays well enough to keep hold of the shirt this weekend, Lydiate could be the one to make way. Warburton and Tipuric dovetailed brilliantly as Wales strolled to a 30-3 win against England last spring, and if Lydiate isn’t at his chop tackling best – as he hasn’t been this season – his position in the side becomes increasingly untenable.
As an aside, Gatland mentioned that Sam has been deployed at eight in training this week, and given that Ryan Jones has been ruled out, Wales are very light on cover for Toby Faletau. Given that Sam hasn’t played eight since his time in the under-20s and is a lot smaller than your average international number eight, let’s hope Toby stays fit as I don’t really fancy watching our ‘made of glass’ captain being used on the crash ball.
Gethin Jenkins ruled out – blessing in disguise?
I’ve tempted fate too many times by suggesting that Gethin is on the wane, but I can’t help but feel that the fact that he isn’t quite fit for this one is good for the team. Gethin is an incredible talent and has done so much for Welsh rugby, but the loosehead has never been strong in the scrum and with the new laws we need all the help we can get.
The influence of Adam Jones has been marginalised under the new laws, and with that in mind, I’m delighted to see Paul James get the nod at loosehead. Against a strong scrummaging outfit like Italy, we will need to be at our best, and our best scrimmaging loosehead is undoubtedly Paul James.
Priestland gets the nod
Bar one or two names I think most of us could predict the squad that Gatland would pick, but the question of who would play 10 is one that I don’t think even the boldest of us would have been definitive about. Gatland was always likely to go with Rhys Priestland or Dan Biggar, but after a mediocre autumn for both players, it was very difficult to predict where Gats would go.
In the end, he has plumped for the potential of Priestland. At his best, Priestland is a better fly half than Biggar, but the trouble for Wales is that the Scarlets playmaker is so rarely at his best. His World Cup form seems a lifetime away now, and although he has starred at regional level in recent months, he has failed to fire internationally for around two years.
Although the Priestland selection doesn’t inspire confidence, it has to be said that had Biggar been selected, I believe most of us would be feeling similar. The Ospreys pivot was poor in his last Wales outing, and has never exactly been on fire in the Welsh jersey. The only other option was James Hook, and given that he mainly plays fullback for Perpignan, it is no surprise to see him not considered once again.
On the subject of Hook, I can’t help but think back to the Six Nations in 2008 when we had two quality 10s in Hook and Stephen Jones. We were able to implement a ‘horses for courses’ approach that was highly effective. Unfortunately, the Welsh gameplan has become narrower and narrower since that first Grand Slam, meaning that the talents of Hook are no longer considered an asset to the Welsh management. When we consider how talented the guy is, it’s a crying shame. Managed effectively, I believe Hook could have operated on a similar level to Quade Cooper; but rather than a player of that ability, we are forced to choose between Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland.
Centres picked themselves
It was good to see Jamie Roberts get some gametime under his belt for Racing Metro last weekend, and it was a no brainer that the ex-Cardiff Blue would be lining up with Scott Williams this weekend. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of this centre partnership, but thankfully, it seems eminently possible that it will only be for one game. Jonathan Davies has been released to play for the Scarlets this weekend, and if the Scarlets 13 comes through that unscathed, we could see the Lions centre combinations back for the Ireland game.
Alun-Wyn captains the side
With Sam on the bench and Gethin given another week to recover, the captaincy was rather a no-brainer. Let’s hope that Alun-Wyn can galvanise the side in the same way he did the Lions last summer. We really need to hit the ground running. With this selection, I think we probably will.