When Hadleigh Parkes and Owen Williams were confirmed as heading for Japanese Top League, there was a collective sigh in Wales, followed by hands to the head and a phrase rhyming with ‘clucking bell’.
With Jonathan Davies’ long-term injury yet to see a firm return date inked-in, a 12-13 combination that had so long looked like a position of strength was looking threadbare.
The emergence of Nick Tompkins in the Six Nations helped, and months later, the crisis in midfield is appearing to subside as Wales regenerates.
One statutesque long-term Polyfilla could come in the shape of Newcastle Falcons centre Johnny Williams. The strapping 6ft 3in, 16st 4lb centre is heavily rumoured with a move to the Scarlets and despite no red smoke emanating from Parc y Scarlets yet, if it transpires he will be backed to fill a Parkes-sized hole in midfield.
Williams’ Welsh links – he has a father from North Wales – are well documented and he is not yet captured by the Red Rose despite playing for the England Saxons against the Barbarians last year as it was non-cap game. As an early developer he has plenty of experience, making his Premiership debut at 18 with London Irish in the 2015-16 season. It bears reminding that he is still only 23.
One man who knows him better than most is Nick Kennedy, the former director of rugby at London Irish and now head of recruitment at Saracens. The former England lock had talent ID’d the big centre having progressed through the school’s and Academy system.
“I signed Johnny straight from school where London Irish had a link up with his St Paul’s Catholic College in the area. He was a star for them and I remember he’d played a little bit at full-back and fly-half. He was our second ever signing when we took over at the Academy and to me it was a complete no brainer. He was massive, had this big fend and an excellent offloading game.”
After three seasons with London Irish, Williams spent last season with Newcastle, impressing in the Championship but despite his obvious physical gifts, Kennedy believes there is much more to his game than simply a crash-ball 12. “I guess with Irish in the Premiership and with Newcastle in the Championship, people used him as big ball-carrying centre to give side’s gainline but that’s to undersell him. He’s got these incredible soft hands and he can kick the ball miles.”
Saracens’ head of recruitment said he has also been impressed with Williams’ mental fortitude after overcoming cancer at such a tender age. “Johnny had a battle with testicular cancer and took it head on. I spoke to him throughout his treatment and he was very methodical, did his research and came out the other side playing for Newcastle by the New Year, five months after being diagnosed. He’s a very determined, very competitive individual and knows what he wants. He’ll have his eye on a starting spot wherever he’s playing. I can see him making it at the top level. He’s already played well for the Saxons against the BaaBaas and I think if he can stay free of injury he’s got the world at his feet.”
Kennedy knows if the move transpires, Welsh fans will be quick to liken him to the likes of 97-cap British and Irish Lion Jamie Roberts and Kennedy believes he could be a hybrid of some of Wales’ best midfielders in recent years. “In a way, he’s a cross between Jamie and Hadleigh (Parkes) but conversely he has a unique skillset. He’s very broad and has those long levers. For Irish, he never took a backward step. I guess he was used as a bit of a battering ram but he did a very good job. He had a few injuries but perhaps that was because he was asked to do too much too young.”
'This is where I began my career, where I came through the ranks and I have a huge amount of friends at the club.'https://t.co/YktFKBhvk8
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 25, 2020
After being born in the West Country, if he does find a home in West Wales, Kennedy says on ability alone, Williams should excite Welsh fans. “Johnny’s dad is big rugby fan and in my opinion he definitely has the potential to play for Wales. Obviously with Glenn Delaney head coach at the Scarlets now and his former backs coach at London Irish Richard Whiffin down there too he would have credit in the bank. Those deep links do help and go a long way. I wish him well.”
Centres of attention: Wales build towards 2023
Nick Tompkins, Dragons (age 25)
A revelation in the Six Nations as Wales’ best ball-carrier, Tompkins is already a multiple Premiership Rugby title winner and Champions Cup winner with Saracens and qualifies for Wales through a Welsh grandmother who hails from Wrexham. Can play at 12 and 13 and is his loan-signing is a huge boost for the Dragons.
Another key man who won't be available for Sarries next season. https://t.co/xqRu0PeplF
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 26, 2020
Tyler Morgan, Scarlets (24)
Morgan played with some aplomb in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final at 19 and though he has struggled with form and fitness in recent years with the Dragons, he has been backed to kickstart his career in West Wales.
Owen Watkin, Ospreys (23)
Watkin prefers to play in the wider 13 channel where he can use his 6ft 2in, 15st 10lb frame to maximum effect. Already with 22 Wales caps, he made a difference from the bench during the 2019 Rugby World Cup with his rip and strip. Now over injury, he has bags of potential.
Kieran Williams, Ospreys (23)
Extremely powerful, Williams is a former Wales U20 international and in a very testing season for the Ospreys, he has stood up with a series of hard-running performances from inside-centre. Showed his mental strength after battling back from two years of injury.
Ben Thomas, Cardiff Blues (21)
A highly-skilled inside-centre who has played at fly-half, Thomas has the pace, vision and execution to excel as a playmaking 12. A former Premiership Player of the Year, Thomas came to the attention with a series of assured performances with the Blues earlier this season. His father Pat is a former British light-middleweight boxing champion.
Corey Baldwin, Exeter Chiefs (21)
A rarity in that he is leaving Wales, much like Rhys Carre 12 months ago, to try and improve as a player at one of the English rugby’s best clubs, Exeter Chiefs. Baldwin, who can play at 13 and on the wing, is highly rated at the Scarlets and just 21, he will learn from the likes of Henry Slade, Alex Cuthbert, Stuart Hogg and Jack Nowell. On signing him, Rob Baxter labelled Baldwin, ‘special’.
Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler, Ospreys (20)
Another player who will emerge from a chastening season with the Ospreys a stronger player, Wheeler is a strapping 6ft 3in inside-centre with a decent offloading game and a strong defensive game. He scored against New Zealand in the U20 Junior World Cup.
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