Warren Gatland is currently enjoying his final festive season as Wales head coach with his team on the longest unbeaten run of his reign.
Whatever happens between now and the end of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, he will lead Wales into a maximum of just 16 more Tests.
The end of a supremely successful era is in sight but before he can step aside for Wayne Pivac, there is plenty of work to be done.
So, as the sun sets on 2018 it is only natural that thoughts drift towards Japan.
A number of players rose to Gatland’s challenge in November and stuck their hand up for World Cup selection. These are the players who we think are sure of their place on the plane.
Competition for the 10 remaining places is intense. Below we round up the big questions facing Gatland nine months from naming his third and final Wales World Cup squad.
Back row – Will Ellis Jenkins be fit?
Cardiff Blues captain Jenkins endured the worst possible luck in November when he suffered a serious knee injury seconds after being announced as man of the match in Wales’ defeat of South Africa at the Principality Stadium.
He went under the knife at the beginning of December to address damage to his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL) and tendon, and faces a race to be fit in time for the World Cup.
For an idea of the battle that lies ahead, Jenkins need only look at international colleague Aaron Shingler who damaged his ACL in last season’s PRO14 final.
It had been hoped that Shingler would return in December, but it now seems unlikely that he will play any rugby until after the Six Nations.
Both Jenkins and Shingler would have harboured real hopes of playing in Japan at the time of their injuries and can expect to be afforded the opportunity to prove their fitness before Gatland trims his squad to 31.
The Kiwi coach has proved loyal in the past, including Bradley Davies in his 2015 World Cup party at the end of a five-and-a-half month lay-off for the lock.
However, Wales’ current riches in the back-row mean that neither would be guaranteed a place on the plane regardless of fitness.
Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric are certainties in Gatland’s squad, health permitting, meaning Jenkins and Shingler face competition from James Davies, Ollie Griffiths, Dan Lydiate, Josh Navidi, Aaron Wainwright and Thomas Young.
Lydiate’s November renaissance appears to put him in the driving seat, while Griffiths and Young have slipped off the Wales radar somewhat.
Wainwright’s form over the autumn puts him ahead of Davies and Navidi, and into direct competition with Jenkins and Shingler for the fifth back-row spot.
Wales’ squad is currently jam-packed with options at six – Cory Hill would come into that mix as well – but Jenkins’ ability to cover all positions at the base of the scrum, especially openside and number eight, means he is likely to get the nod if fit.
If he loses that battle, though, do not be surprised to see Wainwright become Gatland’s back-row bolter.
Third hooker or fifth lock?
Gatland took five second-rows and just two hookers to the 2015 World Cup, but that was very much a decision taken due to circumstance.
Wales had fitness concerns over Alun Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris and Bradley Davies heading into that tournament and felt emboldened to strengthen that area at the expense of a hooker as reinforcements would be close at hand.
“It was always our intention to take three [hookers], but it makes it a little bit easier being at home and having access to a hooker to potentially come in,” Gatland said at the time.
Wales cannot fall back on “home” comforts this time around, and with the World Cup taking place 6,000 miles away in Japan, Gatland will almost certainly select a third hooker.
Ken Owens and Elliot Dee are currently the recognised one and two in that position.
Jake Ball vs. Adam Beard vs. Seb Davies?
Should Gatland opt for a third hooker, and as outlined above it is likely that he will, that would mean a lock would have to be sacrificed.
Ball had been Gatland’s preferred second-row partner for Jones before he dislocated his shoulder against the All Blacks in the 2017 autumn internationals.
He returned to start against Tonga last month, but by then Beard was playing too well to be displaced from the side that went on to beat the Springboks.
Gatland is a fan of the height and physicality that Beard offers, and his performance against the Wallabies in November was particularly timely given Wales will face them again in Japan.
At 6’8” Beard gave Wales parity against the giant Australian second-rows, and he is unlikely to travel to Japan without that option up his sleeve.
Of the seven caps won by Davies to date, meanwhile, only three have come in his favoured position of lock – the other four have come in the back-row.
In a straight shoot-out with Ball and Beard for a place in the final 31-man squad as a specialist lock he would be the odd one out. However, his hopes may hinge on the fitness of Ellis Jenkins.
Were Jenkins to be ruled out of contention it would leave Gatland with only Taulupe Faletau and Ross Moriarty as options at number eight. If that scenario plays out then he may well look to bolster his back-row beef with Davies, meaning Ball would likely be the, very unlucky, man to miss out.
Hallam Amos vs. Steff Evans
Adams has scored only one try in six Tests for his country but his work-rate, composure and defensive acumen were pivotal in the November victories over the Wallabies and Springboks.
Amos is a Gatland favourite, offers cover at full-back as well as on both wings and would have earned far more than the 18 caps he has done were it not for injury.
The potential presence of Adams, Gareth Anscombe, Halfpenny, Rhys Patchell and Liam Williams in the squad for Japan – all comfortable in the 15 jersey – means Wales could be bold and opt for an out-and-out flyer such as Evans.
Evans has six tries in 12 Test appearances, but from Gatland’s perspective it would make sense to select a player, Amos, who has World Cup experience. Harsh as it would be on the Scarlets wing.
Owen Watkin vs. Scott Williams
Centre is one position where little debate surrounds the identity of the first-choice pair. Despite the Scarlets’ struggles this season, you can expect Wales to line up for their most important games in Japan with Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies at 12 and 13.
Received wisdom would suggest that Gatland will take three centres to the World Cup – as he did in 2011 and 2015 – pitching Ospreys team-mates Owen Watkin and Scott Williams into a battle for the remaining spot.
Tyler Morgan is another option – and one with experience of a World Cup quarter-final – but he has won only two caps since the tournament in England and would need a barnstorming 2019 to force his way into the squad.
Williams would arguably be the safe option. He is a 57-cap veteran of the international game who has never let his country down and has scored some important tries.
But Watkin is the future, has impressed as part of an Ospreys side that is pressing for a play-off place in Conference A of the PRO14 and took his chance for Wales in the autumn.
He also offers Gatland something different, a little subtlety, should the more direct Parkes-Davies partnership not reap instant rewards.
Considering all of the above we have picked the 31-man squad we think Gatland will select. The eagle-eyed will notice there are two forward selections. The first includes a fit Ellis Jenkins, the second is our stab at what Gatland will do if the Blues captain is ruled out.
Forwards* (17): Elliot Dee, Ryan Elias, Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Nicky Smith, Tomas Francis, Samson Lee, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Adam Beard, Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau, Ellis Jenkins, Dan Lydiate, Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric.
Forwards** (17): Elliot Dee, Ryan Elias, Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Nicky Smith, Tomas Francis, Samson Lee, Dillon Lewis, Adam Beard, Seb Davies, Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau, Aaron Wainwright, Dan Lydiate, Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric.
Backs (14): Aled Davies, Gareth Davies, Tomos Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Dan Biggar, Rhys Patchell, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Owen Watkin, Josh Adams, Hallam Amos, Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Liam Williams.
*If Ellis Jenkins is fit
**If Ellis Jenkins is ruled out
Should Ellis Jenkins be ruled out of the World Cup then we believe Gatland would opt for the extra option at number eight, meaning Jake Ball misses out and Seb Davies comes in alongside Aaron Wainwright. Either way, the depth of options available to Wales at present is highlighted by those who would still miss out on a place in the back-row – Aaron Shingler, Josh Navidi, James Davies and Thomas Young chief among them.
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