Sport doesn’t always get the scripts it deserves. If it did, Don Bradman would have got off the mark in his final Test innings to bring his batting average up to 100, while Usain Bolt would have beaten pantomime villain Justin Gatlin in his final meaningful race. This adage rang true at the Principality Stadium, where despite the will of a wildly appreciative Welsh fanbase, Warren Gatland was unable to take his final bow at the Principality Stadium as a winner.
Still, if Gatland’s aspirations were of a purely selfish nature, he would have picked a far more robust Welsh XV than he did. Instead, he picked a few fresh-faced debutants, a few boys on the comeback trail and a few who, in truth, had their best days behind them. It was simply a means to an end. It has never been about securing his personal legacy – his is already assured. Gatland, instead, believes strongly in the collective. The bigger picture. For him right now, it’s all about Japan.
Gatland is also acutely aware how disappointing it is to be overlooked for the World Cup – after all he was left out 1991 – and for that reason, his words were earnest and measured in respect of the players omitted. While heralding the strength of New Zealand, England and South Africa, Gatland believes his squad can win the World Cup, so without further ado, here’s the rundown on the 31 men he believes can bring home the Webb Ellis Cup.
The back-three make-up really came down one spare seat. The inclusion of Leigh Halfpenny, George North and Liam Williams, who have amassed 223 caps between them, was never in doubt. So too Josh Adams, who has enjoyed a breakthrough year. Indeed his defensive solidity, hard running and workrate means he is an identikit Gatland player. Williams has had a superlative season, lifting the Champions Cup, Premiership and Six Nations trophy. His ability to cover the backfield from wing and full-back seamlessly and head for heights means he’s lauded as one of the world’s foremost players. North, at 27, is third in Wales’ all-time try scorers with 39 tries and seems to have regained some lustre after well-documented injury concerns. Halfpenny may not be the fleet-of-foot flyer of old, but as a brilliant reader of the game, there are few safer pairs of hands as a last line of defence. Hallam Amos can consider himself a tad fortunate with Owen Lane mounting a strong, late challenge for the plane but his versatility to play anywhere in the outside backs means his stock remains high.
Missed out: Steff Evans, Jonah Holmes, Owen Lane
Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Owen Watkin
Two players were assured of business class seats to the Far East; Jonathan Davies and Hadleigh Parkes. Davies is one of seven Lions in the squad and often referred to as the world’s best 13. For him personally, it’s immensely satisfying after missing the 2015 World Cup through injury. Parkes is another who would have slept well. He’s a ‘glue’ player who is dependable and wears the responsibility of a player with double the caps. The third and final place goes to Owen Watkin, who at 22, is nearly a decade younger than his fellow centres. He’s played a part in every one of Wales’ Tests in 2019 and while he’s yet to put in a defining performance in a Wales shirt, his defensive numbers, turnovers and useful knack of stripping the ball from attackers means he travels. For Scott Williams, Wales’ 58-cap centre, Gatland said he had made huge strides from earlier in the summer when he could barely bend down to pick up a rugby ball, and there were legitimate concerns he wouldn’t even last the duration of the camp. He will continue his rehabilitation by getting minutes with the Ospreys and Wales and be on speed-dial if injuries bite.
Missed out: Scott Williams
From the club to the global stage, the honour of making Wales' @rugbyworldcup squad announcement falls to the players' community clubs ??????? Braint rhoi'r llwyfan i'n clybiau cymunedol, a enwebwyd gan y chwaraewyr eu hun. #HWFN pic.twitter.com/YHZKdDXGb3
— Welsh Rugby Union ? (@WelshRugbyUnion) September 1, 2019
Only time will tell how much of an impact Gareth Anscombe’s injury will have on Wales’ aspirations in Japan, but there’s no doubt his absence will be keenly felt. For Wales to have a player of the quality of Dan Biggar to step-in is fortuitous. He’s a top-quality 10 who is respected worldwide. Jousting for back-up to Biggar until yesterday was Jarrod Evans, the gifted Cardiff Blues 10, and Rhys Patchell, who had endured a morale-sapping season. Gatland revealed that the Welsh camp had had to work Patchell’s confidence throughout the summer and he responded with an increasingly assured performance against Ireland, topped off with a well-taken score. At scrum-half, Gareth Davies is the incumbent. His box-kicking radar may sometimes malfunction, and his passing can be wayward but his ability to win a game single-handed remains undiminished, as he showed in Twickenham. Tomas Williams showed enough innovation against Ireland to leapfrog Aled Davies in the matchday squad, with the Ospreys nine enduring a frustrating afternoon, where he was ponderous at the ruck and made errors. To have Rhys Webb kicking his heels in the South of France still seems self-defeating, nearly two years after his ineligibility was announced.
Missed out: Jarrod Evans
The considered thinking was that Gatland would go with five back rows, which seemed like curtains for James Davies, but Gatland, a born-gambler, decided to instead go with five props and six back rows, with Aaron Shingleran option at lock. Like Anscombe, the innocuous shoulder injury to the world-class Taulupe Faletau must have caused face-palms for members of the management but in Ross Moriarty, Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi, Gatland knows he has a unit who were good enough to win a Grand Slam. All are interchangeable at 6 and 7, with Navidi gaining valuable minutes at No 8. Davies is the wildcard but the gifted Olympic silver-medal winner, who has endured his own fitness concerns this season, may yet thrive on the fast-tracks of Japan, where his Sevens instincts may come to the fore.
With Alun Wyn Jones rested against Ireland, the leadership-void was pronounced, and an injury early on to this titan of world rugby could be fatal for Wales. The inclusion of Cory Hill, who is recovering from a leg fracture shows how much Gatland values his leadership qualities. It’s the reason Wales found room for a sixth back row forward and saw Rob Evans dropped from the squad. Adam Beard still has L-Plates on in international terms but at 6ft 8in, he will be eye-to-eye with the biggest beasts out in Japan. Jake Ball’s inclusion is also merited. He may not boast basketball skills that would make LeBron James blush, but he’s a willing runner into heavy traffic, will tackle himself to standstill and hit rucks all day long. If Hill can return to fitness, it’s a well-balanced quartet.
Missing out: Bradley Davies
There wasn’t much discussion over the No 2 shirt. Ken Owens is one of Wales’ most influential players and Elliot Dee is the perfect high-energy replacement from the bench. Ryan Elias will also travel but has some way to go to usurp Dee. The discussions over props were more complex. Six were expected to travel, but the knock-on effect of Hill’s continued recuperation meant that was revised to five with one prop had to be able to cover at port and starboard. The man selected was Wyn Jones, one of the strongest scrummagers in the squad. In truth, the Welsh set-piece has been a concern, after wobbling against England and Ireland this summer. The man tasked with anchoring the Welsh pack is Tomas Francis, with Dillon Lewis expected to provide mobility late on. Nicky Smith is expected to fill the No 1 shirt, with Rhys Carre in waiting in the wings. Carre has figuratively ripped up trees in the 12 weeks with the squad. At 6ft 3in and over 20st – this after losing 10kgs over the summer – he will make provide some ball-carrying heft from the bench.
Missing out: Samson Lee, Rob Evans, Leon Brown.
O’Driscoll’s for World Cup glory
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