Wales v Italy: the team

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.

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5 Responses to Wales v Italy: the team

  1. Buccaneer says:

    Any Welshmen worried any of the 6N teams may have figured out a way to defend against Warrenball? The personal has barely changed, and the game plan not at all in 2.5 years. If that team comes up against an airtight, disciplened defence its hard to see where the points will come from. I know Hook is on the bench (whom I rate very highly!) but he must feel he didn’t have GATS confidence, a massive ask to come on and change a game in a half hour.

    I love Warburton and Tipuric playing together! Its a very progressive, attacking selection. I hope Joe Schmidt has a plan for those 2 marauding at the breakdown as well as stopping the big lads bashing through the line!

    • woodster says:

      Buccaneer, I for one am concerned about our lack of plan B. We are the team to beat, and no doubt every team has done a lot of analysis around nullifying our ball carrying threat. For this reason, I have felt for some time that we need to shift to a more expansive gameplan, as the 1D Warrenball will not always be effective.

      • Charlie says:

        The Australia game highlighted a lot of the limits to our current approach. Whilst we were definitely outclassed in quite a few areas, a big reason we never quite looked the part was that Aus disrupted our attacking rucks so well. We played off slow ball for much of the game, and by the time we got ball up and out the Aussies were set and ready for the big runners. They cut us off at source and a lot of people will have been taking notes.

  2. Buccaneer says:

    Worked in the 6N till now of course but I agree there has been virtually no attempt at even developing a plan B. Seems odd as according to this blog there are some young welsh backs offering something different.

    The big target on the welsh jersey means plan A has to worked perfectly this championship

  3. Charlie says:

    All in all I’m happy enough with the team. It’s tough on Biggar but I do think Priestland needs some time on the pitch. He’s by far my preferred option (I don’t think the Ospreys’ style will take us far enough at this level. Unless they promote Sam Davies!) but I’d be happy if we just picked a guy and backed him coming up to the World Cup . I might have given Samson Lee a place on the bench and I would probably put Emyr Phillips just ahead of Owens (a game enough player, Owens, but the lineout seems to collapse when he comes on for Wales). Last season I could not have imagined calling for more Scarlets front-rowers in the team, fair play to them.
    I was pleased to see Webb in the squad, he has looked bright lately. With Knoyle on his way back to Wales we might start to address the post-Phillips plan b.

    Doom and gloom from me:

    Adam Jones isn’t quite his usual self lately. I suspect he’ll get there, but Italy will not be giving anyone an easy ride up front. Our back row is not quite 100%, we don’t know who our 10 is, Ryan Jones is a player we always miss, and we’re light on fit centres. Oh and there’s some row about money and contracts or something.

    Optimism from me:

    Players in search of form have a great chance to sort it out on the pitch. We’re at home tomorrow and there’s real talent in that 23. Wales by eight!

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