With rugby stuck in paralysis, many scribes and fans alike are casting their eyes forward to the next World Cup, something you expect Wayne Pivac and Wales are doing with the benefit of dizzying amounts of unplanned thinking time. France 2023 is still a distant speck in the distance and one position the Welsh appear well-stocked in at the moment is scrum-half. Dig a bit deep, though, and there is – statistically at least – likely to be movement in this key position.
Looking at all nine World Cups is instructive: the average age of a starting Wales scrum-half was 26 years and four months. It should also be added that not one of those players was in their thirties. Household names like Rob Howley, Dwayne Peel, Mike Phillips and Gareth Davies all wore the Welsh No9 shirt at the height of their powers – in their twenties.
When trying to pinpoint, Inspector Clouseau-style admittedly, how the trend affects the suitors to the jersey shirt for France in 2023, you would assuage that Rhys Webb – 35 two months after the jamboree in France ends, and Gareth Davies – 33 a month before the competition starts have the odds stacked against them. For all intents and purposes, they are fighting against the dying light.
Further evidence shows that at the recent World Cup in 2019, the oldest starting scrum-half in the knockout stages was Australia’s Will Genia at 31. That’s not to say it’s impossible. Ageing scrum-halves to have started at World Cups include Fabien Galthie and George Gregan, who were 34 in 2003 and 2007 respectively, while Agustin Pichot was a whipper-snapper at 33 in ’07 and Fourie du Preez 33 in 2015.
But you have to do some deep excavation to find exceptions to the rule. Test rugby, especially in its current guise, is a young man’s game. One man who had his share of thrills and spills at the World Cup with Wales was Robert Jones. He played in three tournaments, the first as a fresh-faced 21-year-old in 1987 in New Zealand where Wales finished in third place.
The Trebanos-born British and Irish Lion agreed that the gifted trio of Webb, Davies and Tomos Williams means the Welsh cup runneth over in the next 18 months. But by the time Pivac’s squad is crossing La Manche, these two elder statesmen could have departed and Wales would be down to a then 28-year-old Williams for the World Cup.
“If you look forward to 2023 the trio mentioned will still be desperate to play for Wales in France, especially as this season has passed them,” said Jones to RugbyPass. “But past the Lions next summer, the majority would say Tomos Williams is front runner for the next World Cup.”
Of the next wave to battle it out with Williams, the progress of Kieran Hardy with the Scarlets has been noted by rugby’s cognoscenti. Just 24, he has rough edges to soften, but after spending the season in the Championship with Jersey, he has raised eyebrows with his raw pace and try-scoring threat. Indeed, the pick of his eight tries this season was a 70-metre individual effort against Zebre that had shades of the prolific form Davies enjoyed in the 2013/14 season at a similar age.
“Kieran has looked impressive,” continued Jones. “He has grown in confidence as the season has progressed and has been putting his hand up. Stephen Jones would know him well from the Scarlets and he’s the right age to really flourish in France.
“I would imagine Wayne Pivac will be keen on bringing him in at some point to have a look at him. What further benefits him is the fact departing Scarlets scrum-half Aled Davies has made himself unavailable by heading for London with Saracens for three years, so he has moved up the pecking order.”
The other player Jones reckoned should not to discounted is Rhodri Williams. He has made such a telling impression at the Dragons this season, dovetailing with Sam Davies, and having just turned 27 he is becoming too polished to be discarded by Wales with a view to the next World Cup.
“When Rhodri first came on the scene he reminded me of his father Alan, who I played with at Swansea. He was a very rounded, intelligent scrum-half. In fact, Rhod seems to have a little bit more balance and control on his game than his dad. Being out in Bristol may have hampered him a little but since coming back to the Dragons, he has been playing really well. You can’t write guys like that off. The more responsibility he gets, the more mature he will get.”
In recent years, Welsh scrum-halves often come through in their mid-twenties. Howley got the lion’s share of his caps between 25 and 31. Phillips had to wait for Warren Gatland to come in and usurp Peel at 25 and Webb consequently had to play the waiting game with Phillips, so there is a trend.
“June 4 marks the 25th anniversary of the last Wales team to play in the old amateur era, a 1995 defeat to Ireland at the World Cup”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 4, 2020
“Listen, the players these days are so professional and committed to the cause that you can’t write Rhys and Gareth off, but if you look a little deeper, there are players kicking their heels ready to step up,” continued Jones. “I watched Harry Randall quite a bit playing for England at U20 level but I know he’s qualified to play for Wales growing up in the Amman Valley. He’s small but very savvy. He puts his body on the line and is in a good place to learn with Bristol, playing with Welsh-qualified Callum Sheedy under Pat Lam.”
While Jones doesn’t know what Randall’s intentions are, the scrum-half is not captured by England and if the likes of Ross Moriarty, Nick Tompkins and Sam Moore are anything to go by, he could yet switch allegiance. Closer to home, much has been said about Harri Morgan, the 20-year-old who impressed as Wales’ starting No9 at last year’s U20s World Championships. “I’ve seen plenty of Harri at youth level and I know they think an awful lot of him at the Ospreys,” vouched Jones.
“He has had his injury problems in the last year, which has held him back, but he has got all the talent. What I would say is he is a very quiet individual and needs to improve his communication, which is a such a big part of any 9s game. With Rhys Webb coming back (to Ospreys) you’d expect him to be the main man, but you hope Harri will get more opportunities alongside Reuben Morgan-Williams who has just signed a new deal.”
Jones played in the amateur era where there were a glut of clubs and he does feel lack of opportunity does hold back Welsh No9s as there are only four regions. “There are only four starting spots, so it’s tricky. Playing at Bridgend, Swansea and Neath at the Premiership level is just not going to be a good enough standard. If these young guys can’t move the first-choice players you could see them choosing to look outside Wales to gain valuable playing experience, as Kieran did.”
In the short-term, though, Jones doesn’t see the Test level status-quo changing. “Along with Tomos, who I’ve mentioned, Gareth has scored some fantastic tries for Wales, especially the intercepts. There are parts of his game that could do with improvement, but at the elite end we have enough depth to switch players around depending on what we need.
“I’d say Rhys Webb is the most complete nine. He controls, he can run, his service is good and he is powerful. I also think his kicking game is pretty decent but the others have points of difference he hasn’t got. That is the beauty of rugby, really. In 2023, there could be a nine none of us have heard of yet, coming through as I guess I did in 1987.”
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now