Wales has fielded a steady production line of Rolls-Royce midfield pairings since the advent of professionalism. The graceful arcing runs of Allan Bateman were complimented by the quick feet and thunderclap tackling of Scott Gibbs in the late Nineties.
In the Noughties, the perma-tanned Gavin Henson, who boasted both steel and finesse in equal measure, dovetailed with the elegant Tom Shanklin, who could cut a telling line through the defence and had the raw pace to plunder 20 tries for Wales in the wide channels.
The final pair of household names were the adamantine Jamie Roberts and multi-skilled Jonathan Davies. Both were double-series Test Lions who played a record 52 times together for Wales, lagging behind only Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy (56) and Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu (55) in the all-time centre pairings.
As Wales look towards the 2020 Six Nations there is a supply problem, however. With Davies out for the majority of the season and Hadleigh Parkes in his 33rd year, there are furrowed brows unlike at openside where Wales could feasibly set-up an international loan service given the number of top quality breakdown exponents at their disposal.
What exactly is Wales’ succession plan when Parkes and Davies call it quits? Playing a supporting role for the last two years has been Owen Watkin. The 23-year old has 22 caps since making his debut in 2017, but only ten of them starts. Despite a handful of eye-catching cameos, he is yet to forge a career-defining performance in a Welsh shirt.
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One man who knows all about centre play in a red shirt is John Devereux, who inspired a million hand-offs with his muscular, devil-may-care attitude. The former Bridgend stalwart agrees there is a dearth of midfielders following Davies and Parkes but he argues that Watkin, who has given new national team boss Wayne Pivac an injury concern after damaging cartilage against Racing 92, has had far too much investment to be side-tracked.
“For me, Owen Watkin should have played in front of Hadleigh Parkes in that semi-final against South Africa. The management possibly dropped a clanger in not picking him. They need to stick with him because, being honest, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot beneath him. The age profile they have there isn’t quite right at the moment.”
Devereux concedes that at the start of a World Cup cycle, there is room for experimentation, especially given the advancing years of Parkes and Davies. “The two first-choice centres are getting on. At the World Cup, Jonathan Davies was carrying an injury and now faces time out, while Hadleigh Parkes was battered and bruised and virtually held together with sticky tape. We need to see what is around.”
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The hugely experienced Scott Williams would appear to be at an international crossroads. He has had a tortuous time with injury in the last year, and his ex-coach Warren Gatland said it was a testament to the West Walian’s resolve that he was even able put himself in the frame for World Cup selection when he could barely bend down to pick up a ball at the start of the summer, such was his discomfort from a back injury.
Not selected for Wales’ Barbarians squad, it’s clear the new management feel he needs a period of regular rugby to return to his destructive best although, given he’s at the crisis-stricken Ospreys, it’s hardly helping his confidence.
Devereux concurs that form and fitness need to be established first. “Scott hasn’t really kicked on as some hoped after some very promising seasons. He has some weaknesses, with his inconsistent passing and his fitness concerns have held him back of late. I hope he gets back to his best.”
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Pivac’s next short-term fix appeared to be Willis Halaholo, the hot-stepping Cardiff Blues. He was a player tasked with bringing some much-needed offensive flair to a Welsh side hiding its attacking instincts under a bushel, yet he is now out for the season after picking up an inopportune knee injury against Leicester, leaving Pivac reverting to the drawing board.
It was therefore instructive that for the last 13 minutes of Barbarians game, for the eagle-eyed, the white-hot Josh Adams slotted in at 13. Adams is enjoying career-best form with a dozen tries in red in the last year and with a Cardiff hat-trick at the weekend, he would appear, on paper, a viable option.
The former Worcester Warrior covered 13 at Sixways and of course, if he were to keep Jonathan Davies’ shirt warm during this Six Nations it would avoid the selection conundrum of picking between Adams, George North and the newly qualified Johnny McNicholl, who started his Test career with such aplomb a few weeks ago.
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Devereux, though, has his reservations if Adams is to cover there and suggests his defensive game would need further tightening. “Josh still has a lot to learn. He’s scoring tries for fun at the other end of the pitch but he endured a difficult opening half against Fiji and is still a work in progress. It will be interesting to see what they do for the Italy game and beyond.”
Indeed, the oft-mooted experiment of playing North at 13 earlier in his career appears to have been shelved indefinitely, with public reasons not aired as to why the 6ft 4in, 17st North Walian, who has refined his defensive game in the last twelve to 18 months, has not been given more time patrolling a taxing defensive channel.
While the likes of Owen Williams, Jack Dixon and Tyler Morgan seemingly outside bets, temporary options include Hallam Amos, who has been known to cover at 13 and has the attributes to cover there. At 25 the utility player is more likely to be deployed at full-back after an injury-plagued few years.
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The trainee doctor is under consideration but Devereux feels he needs to bed in at the Cardiff Blues before being thrust into an unfamiliar role at Test level. “Hallam has been talked about but I’m not sure he’s the answer. The World Cup passed him by a little. He fluffed his lines against Uruguay, missing a few try-scoring chances and just needs regular rugby without injury.
“Being at the Blues might help his game after not experiencing much success at the Dragons. It’s a defining year for him in many ways. He’s in his prime at 25 and should be grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck, looking to dominate his opposing number.”
One man who could emerge by moving inside one place is Owen Lane. The 21-year old Cardiff Blue spent his age-grade life playing at outside centre and there are many who feel he possesses the physical gifts to excel there.
Lane played the majority of his rugby at 13 coming through the age-grades and Pivac will know now is the perfect time to tinker with positional changes. He has to find that difficult balance between blooding young players and starting off his tenure with a few wins.
Longer term, there are a few names worth considering. Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler, at just 20, is an age-grade cap and talented footballer who chose to follow the family firm and pick rugby.
At 6ft 3ins and nearly 16st, he has the size to dominate at No12 and, as a former fly-half, the distribution skills to play as a second receiver. With the Ospreys at sixes and sevens, the centre from Trebanos is also gaining a baptism of fire that will do him no harm in the future.
Yesterday's meeting with @Barbarian_FC saw us welcome an exciting new coaching regime, and say farewell to an icon of Welsh rugby who created over a decade of great memories. #DiolchWarren pic.twitter.com/JdaVwMJWVw
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Another inside centre who has been earning glowing reviews at Cardiff Arms Park is 20-year old Ben Thomas, who scored a fine individual try against Pau last weekend and fits the ball-playing playmaker role having played at fly-half for Cardiff.
As to why there seems to be a scarcity of centres in Wales, Devereux is at a loss but says certain fundamentals remain if you are to thrive there. “Despite the game changing so much you still need a target man to take you over the gainline. Look at Manu Tuilagi for England. He gives them that. During the World Cup, Wales struggled to make line-breaks, so we used cross-kicks to mixed success.”
The attrition rate and continual physical toll was why Devereux got out of rugby league in 1997 and he understands the physical rigours of playing there. “Rugby league was unsustainable long term. I loved the contact and running through people but you can only do that for so long, whereas Jiffy (Jonathan Davies) looked to be evasive and beat a man through electrifying pace.
“These days, it is amazing Jamie Roberts is still going strong at 33 after running the lines he does. Wales need someone with all the skills – the footwork, kicking game and ability to double-up in defence if there is heavy traffic coming down your channel. It’s not that easy to find.”
As to why there are so few standout Welsh midfielders these days, Devereux says it could be because the modern game is nullifying the attacking game. “You have such little room for manoeuvre. Defences are off the mark so quickly so you have to be razor-sharp to stretch defences.
“When the bench unloads after 50 minutes, mismatches are more difficult to manipulate because players are fresh, whereas the bigger lads who were spent could routinely be exploited in my playing days.”
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The influence of Devereux’s old sport, rugby league, is still wide-ranging, and the former centre believes Wales have to forge their own individual style to outwit bigger sides. Indeed, he is encouraged by the early missives emanating from Pivac’s camp about playing a more expansive game.
“Wales need to be more offensive, to have more ball-in-play time. We have to concentrate on ball skills. What was so illuminating from the World Cup was the handling of the Japanese side. They were outstanding. They showed Wales the way. We have to improve our skills and find space to exploit and what better place than midfield to start.”
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