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Predicting the Wales line-up to face Australia in the first Test

By Simon Thomas
Wales players sing the national anthem during the Summer Series international rugby union match between South Africa and Wales at Twickenham Stadium, south-west London, on June 22, 2024. (Photo by Ben Stansall / AFP) (Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

Wales head out to Australia this week for a tour which takes in two Tests against the Wallabies and a meeting with the Queensland Reds.

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They are without a host of front-line players, with the likes of Jac Morgan, Tomos Williams, Josh Adams, Will Rowlands, Ryan Elias, Taulupe Faletau, Adam Beard, Elliot Dee and Gareth Anscombe all absent.

That has resulted in a fresh-faced 34-man squad which includes no fewer than 15 players with six or less caps. So who will coach Warren Gatland select for next week’s first Test in Sydney as he looks to end a seven-match losing run?

Simon Thomas considers the likely line-up.

Back three: Cam Winnett, Liam Williams, Rio Dyer

Making his first Test appearance since the World Cup, the returning Liam Williams was Wales’ stand-out back against South Africa at Twickenham last weekend, showing he is still a class act at 33. So, there may be a temptation to select him in arguably his best position of full-back, where his aerial excellence and counter-attacking really come to the fore.

But then that would mean throwing a rookie in on the wing, with Josh Hathaway and Regan Grace both uncapped, while the versatile Mason Grady hasn’t started a Test there. So you would imagine Williams would stay out wide, along with Rio Dyer, with Cam Winnett continuing at full-back where he hasn’t really put too many feet wrong during a breakthrough campaign.

Centres: Mason Grady, Owen Watkin

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This is the hardest area of the team to predict.

Wales looked to have found a settled and effective midfield pairing with Nick Tompkins and George North dovetailing well at the World Cup.

But Tompkins struggled for form during the Six Nations, unable to hit it off amid a change at fly-half, while North is now retired from Test rugby.

Wales Australia
Owen Watkin of Wales looks on during the Summer Rugby International match between South Africa and Wales at Twickenham Stadium on June 22, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

We’ve seen a variety of different combinations tried out this year, with the latest experiment seeing Mason Grady selected at 12 against South Africa last weekend.

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That’s very much a return to the old Warrenball approach, utilising the giant frame of the 6ft 5ins, 17st 9lbs Grady to carry the ball up into traffic.

Many would prefer to see Wales go with a second playmaker at inside centre in the shape of Ben Thomas who has had a fine season at Cardiff.

But Gatland has seldom gone down that route and it appears the versatile Thomas is being considered purely as a fly-half on this tour.

Grady has played his regional rugby at wing and outside centre, so the jury is out on whether employing him at 12 is the best use of his pace and explosive running threat in space.

But it might well be that Gatland gives the experiment a second go, while opting for the defensive reliability and experience of 39-cap Owen Watkin at 13.

Fixture
Internationals
Australia
25 - 16
Full-time
Wales
All Stats and Data

Half-backs: Sam Costelow, Gareth Davies

With Dan Biggar retired and Gareth Anscombe unavailable, it was the Scarlets duo of Sam Costelow and Ioan Lloyd who shared the fly-half duties during the Six Nations.

Somewhat surprisingly, Lloyd has missed out on tour selection, leaving Costelow as the only specialist No.10 in the squad.

The former Leicester pivot is a talented footballer, whose first instinct as a youngster was to run with the ball and take on defences, but he’s playing a pretty proscriptive role with Wales at the moment, either hoofing the ball skyward or shipping it on to a midfield carrier.

It’s not really working from an attacking perspective, and, as a result, Costelow is having to deal with the scrutiny and spotlight that always falls on the Wales No.10.

You also have the backdrop of Gatland talking about looking for a bigger, more physical option at fly-half and that’s reflected by Jacob Beetham and Ben Thomas – normally full-back and centre respectively – serving as cover on this trip. It may well be that Thomas gets a start at 10 in one of the Tests, but for now you would expect Costelow to keep the reins.

Turning to scrum-half, Ellis Bevan had a tidy Test debut versus South Africa where he was up against a certain Faf de Klerk. Being left footed, he provided a different angle on the role and organised the exits well, while he put in a lot of work in defence and came tantalisingly close to a try.

Wales could look to reward him with another start, but you would think they are more likely to go for the huge experience of the 77-cap Gareth Davies. He will be 34 this summer, but he is still performing well and has played an integral role for Wales over the years with the licence he is given to fly out of the line in defence, while also bringing physicality and try-scenting support lines.

Front row: Gareth Thomas, Dewi Lake, Dillon Lewis

The tighthead prop position has been ravaged by injuries with Henry Thomas, Keiron Assiratti and Leon Brown all ruled out of the trip, while Dillon Lewis has had an ongoing back issue.

The hope is the 57-cap Lewis can come through and prove his fitness to start in Sydney, but if not Wales will have to turn to either Archie Griffin or Harri O’Connor, who have just three caps between them, with Bath’s highly-rated Griffin the likely option.

Head-to-Head

Last 5 Meetings

Wins
3
Draws
0
Wins
2
Average Points scored
26
29
First try wins
60%
Home team wins
60%

It’s a situation which has led people to question why the vastly experienced Tomas Francis – now playing out in France – hasn’t been considered, with the omission of strong scrummaging Ospreys stalwart Tom Botha also raising eyebrows.

As for the other two front row positions, the hard-working Gareth Thomas is in pole position at loosehead prop, while tour captain Dewi Lake is a nailed on starter at hooker.

Lake was outstanding against South Africa, particularly with his carrying, and keeping him injury-free will be vital with Cardiff youngsters Evan Lloyd and Efan Daniel providing the promising, but raw back-up.

Second row: Daf Jenkins, Ben Carter

Having been unavailable for the out-of-window meeting with the Springboks through playing in England, Six Nations skipper Daf Jenkins looks odds on to return to the boilerhouse.

The question is who will partner him there?

The three other locks utilised in the Championship – Adam Beard, Will Rowlands and Teddy Williams – are all absent from the tour.

Gatland could turn to the experienced Cory Hill – 32 in terms of both age and caps. His recall has been contentious given he has been playing his recent rugby in the Japanese fourth division for Secom Rugguts and hasn’t figured for Wales since he was named among a group of men who damaged a woman’s house in May 2021.

But Gatland insists Wales have moved past that incident, for which Hill apologised, and the Kiwi coach has always valued the contribution of the two-times Six Nations winner, particularly in terms of his line-out calling and work-rate.

Another option would be to pair Jenkins with his Exeter team-mate Christ Tshiunza who plays his club rugby on the flank, but has figured at lock before, fulfilling that hybrid squad role.

Sam Costelow Christ Tshiunza Gareth Davies
Wales’ fly-half Sam Costelow and Wales’ lock Christ Tshiunza hug Wales’ scrum-half Gareth Davies (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP) (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images)

Alternatively, it could be a big opportunity for one of the two Dragons recalled to face the Springboks – Ben Carter or Matthew Screech.

On balance, you would think Carter is the front runner having put in a big shift at Twickenham, making more  tackles (16) than anyone else on the pitch. The 23-year-old now brings a bulked-up physical presence to the engine room having added some six kilos while sidelined with hamstring damage in mid-season.

Back row: Taine Plumtree, Tommy Reffell, Aaron Wainwright

Like Jenkins, Leicester’s Tommy Reffell couldn’t be selected for the Springboks game due to Premiership club policy, but he looks certain to come back in on the openside flank against the Wallabies.

He was arguably Wales’ stand-out player during the Six Nations, with his appropriately tigerish work over the ball, his tackling and his intelligent support play.

It had looked as though we were in for a fascinating battle between him and World Cup co-captain Jac Morgan for the No 7 jersey Down Under.

Tommy Reffell
Reffell has added ball carrying to his already superb defence and breakdown work in this Six Nations (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

But with the luckless Morgan having suffered another injury blow, ruling him out of the trip, that issue has been resolved.

On the other flank, there was plenty of promise from Taine Plumtree against South Africa, particularly in terms of his defensive work, both in dominant tackles and with his disruptive swimming at mauls, so he will doubtless get another chance.

Finally, it will be a landmark occasion for Aaron Wainwright, perhaps the player of the season in Welsh rugby. He will win his 50th cap, having established himself as one of the first names on the Test team-sheet with his all-round excellence.

Wales tour schedule:

Saturday, July 6: Australia v Wales (Allianz Stadium, Sydney) – 10.55am BST

Saturday, July 13: Australia v Wales (AAMI Park, Melbourne) – 10.55am

Friday, July 19: Queensland Reds v Wales (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane) – 10.55am

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Comments

1 Comment
S
Simon 23 days ago

Simon Thomas just sits on the fence as long as it’s painted blue and black!

Gatland has backed himself into a corner by coming back to Wales and the WRU have been suckered into having him back because of the past.
Well, rugby has moved on, players are different, rules have changed but Gatland remains the same. Route one, arm wrestle, kick chase and the odd rolling maul. Teams are shown to win test matches by scoring 4+ tries and 30+ points.
Gatland hopes to win by restricting tries and points and pinching a late penalty to win by a point or two.
Gatland brought back Howley and the WRU allowed it. Why and how?
What does Jon Humphreys coach the forwards?
Does Alex King actually do anything? Wales have no style, no pattern of play and the bluntest attack it has had since the 1990s.
Neil Jenkins was a great goal kicker but skills and tactics were never his strength, yet he remains in place.
Forshaw is tinkering with defence but the likes of Dyer and Grady are like schoolboys following the ball and leave gaps all over the place and the outside to in system will be exposed by any savvy attack coach.
Until the WRU realise Gatland was the wrong choice, Welsh rugby will be in a bad place until 2027!

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