Clouds might be gathering up and down the UK as a once-glorious summer fades, but with the 2018-19 domestic season set to kick off on Friday night there is one corner of the island that continues to bask in bright, blue skies.
The airspace above Welsh rugby HQ is anything but grey as Warren Gatland plots a course for the 2019 Rugby World Cup having built on an encouraging Six Nations campaign with a clean sweep summer tour.
Wales took an experimental squad to the United States and Argentina in June, and returned not only victorious but also with shoots of genuine, and in some positions frightening, squad depth. Those noises you can hear from the west of the River Severn are the unmistakable rumblings of optimism.
So, with just over 12 months until the World Cup kicks off, RugbyPass picked out six Welshman who face varying challenges this season as they look to book a seat on the flight to Japan.
Josh Adams (Worcester Warriors)
Worcester wing Josh Adams will attempt to follow up the success of his breakthrough international season while contemplating the biggest decision of his fledgling career.
Adams has entered the final year of his contract at Sixways and must make the journey back across the Severn Bridge if he is to continue his Wales career.
He insists his sole focus is scoring tries for the Warriors. If he continues to do so in such volume during the 2018-19 campaign then not only will the regions be beating down his door, but it will be hard for Gatland to leave him out of his World Cup squad.
“Josh is obviously very physically gifted but he’s a smart, smart player, he’s very intelligent, he’s rugby smart and that’s stands him head and shoulders above a lot of the Welsh wingers that are currently around,” Adams’ Worcester team-mate Chris Pennell told RugbyPass.
“I think one of the reasons he’s scored so many tries is because he’s in the right place and he reads the game so well. There’s definitely a huge amount to come from him as well, he’s very much not the finished article by his own admission so it’s exciting, it’s really exciting.”
Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints)
If ever there was a time over the last five years that Dan Biggar’s standing as Wales’ undisputed No. 10 was under threat, it is now.
As he took a well-earned break and prepared for his new life in Northampton, Rhys Patchell laid claim to the fly-half berth with an impressive tour of Argentina.
The Scarlets playmaker has emerged as an exciting option for Gatland since his move to west Wales, and the fact his regional team-mate Gareth Davies is now first-choice scrum-half will do his hopes of starting the autumn series no harm.
Biggar has done nothing wrong, and remains an excellent fly-half but with Gareth Anscombe, Rhys Priestland, Sam Davies and Jarrod Evans all vying for contention the competition for the No. 10 jersey will be intense leading into the World Cup.
Biggar rejected the notion that moving to the Gallagher Premiership so close to the World Cup is not a brave call, and having settled quickly in Northampton he is determined to excel for a Saints team given licence under Chris Boyd and Sam Vesty.
“We’ve had a long summer in terms of pre-season, it’s been a tough summer,” Biggar told RugbyPass. “The boys have put a lot of work in and overall it’s been really positive.
“I’ve enjoyed getting to know different people, testing myself in a different environment and it’s been really good.”
Seb Davies (Cardiff Blues)
The battle to partner Alun Wyn Jones, fitness permitting, at the World Cup is shaping up to be an intense one. Jake Ball is returning from injury, while Adam Beard and Bradley Davies both got 40 minutes under their belts against Saracens in London on Thursday.
Dragons captain Cory Hill is arguably the man in possession of the shirt, but Seb Davies has a real shot at starting in Japan should he replicate the form that helped the Blues lift the Challenge Cup in May.
Davies has won six Wales caps since making his debut against Tonga last summer, but only half of those have come in his favoured position. The other three have come in the back row, where he started both victories over Argentina in June.
Given the wealth of options available to Gatland in that area it is unlikely that he will hold onto the number six shirt into the autumn series, but a good start to the season in the Blues engine room – where he should feature alongside another Wales international, Rory Thornton – could thrust him into contention at lock.
Gatland clearly rates the 22-year-old having capped him after just four league appearances, as a replacement, for the Blues.
Keelan Giles (Ospreys)
It was a watching brief again for Keelan Giles and the other injured Ospreys in London last Thursday evening, and although the young wing is not expected back on the pitch until October he will be keen to make up for lost time once fit.
Giles’ 2017-18 campaign was ended after just seven games due to serious knee ligament damage which forced him to undergo reconstruction surgery. Should he return when planned the 20-year-old will have missed a full calendar year of rugby.
Giles was an unused replacement when Wales beat Japan in Cardiff in November 2016, but despite touring the southern hemisphere with his national squad in consecutive summers he is yet to win a senior Test cap.
He has spoken in the past about how much a Wales cap would mean to him, and should he rediscover his try-scoring touch then that dream would again edge closer to becoming reality.
The Ospreys speedster is supremely talented having scored 16 tries in just 23 appearances for his region. Giles’ out-and-out pace and agility could yet offer Wales something different in Japan.
Ellis Jenkins (Cardiff Blues)
Given the year Ellis Jenkins has had thus far, it would take a brave person to wager against him ending this season on the plane to Japan.
Having made his Six Nations debut, led the Blues to Challenge Cup glory, co-captained Wales on a perfect summer tour and gone viral due to a WhatsApp mix-up between his mum and sister, 2018 has certainly been one to remember for the flanker.
Yet those achievements all occurred in a world in which Jenkins was yet to be confirmed as the Blues’ full-time skipper and Sam Warburton was still a registered player, making his way back from injury.
Warburton will make one final appearance on the Arms Park turf at half-time of the Blues’ opening PRO14 clash against Leinster on Friday, and Jenkins has a crucial role to play to help club and country fill his talismanic void – especially with Josh Navidi currently injured.
It will be fascinating to see whether Jenkins, who assumed the Blues captaincy from namesake Gethin Jenkins in pre-season, rises to the challenge facing him. If recent history is anything to go by then the answer to that particular question will be a resounding ‘yes’.
And with competition in the back-row fierce for both the Blues and Wales, he knows that he cannot afford to take his place in either squad for granted despite his newly acquired status at the Cardiff Arms Park.
“Being captain you have to make sure, first and foremost, that your performances are excellent and that will warrant you getting picked,” he said. “Even if you are captain, I’ve always said, if someone is playing better then they deserve to play.”
Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Blues)
Blues tighthead and coffee entrepreneur Dillon Lewis took his opportunity with both hands on Wales’ summer tour, playing in all three Tests – starting the first two – and generally impressing with his all-round play as South Africa and Argentina were both seen off.
To international observers it looked as though Lewis had put down a serious claim to the Welsh number three shirt on the road to Japan 2019 and beyond. But while he has put real pressure on Samson Lee and Tomas Francis in the lead up to the World Cup, his most pressing challenge is nailing down a spot in the Blues front row.
Lewis started just one PRO14 game for his region last season, thanks to a mixture of injury and the form of the evergreen prop Taufa’ao Filise.
The good news for the 22-year-old Wales hopeful is that Filise, 41, hung up his boots at the end of the last campaign, following 12 years at the Arms Park and 255 Blues appearances. But Lewis will still face a battle for the number three shirt in the Tongan prop’s absence.
The Blues have supplemented tighthead stocks that also include Scott Andrews and Anton Peikrishvili with the signing of highly-rated Moldovan prop Dmitri Arhip from Ospreys. Lewis is well aware he faces a tough challenge.
“My biggest goal this season is just playing regularly for the Blues,” he told WalesOnline. “Getting in a position where I’m playing week-in, week-out and get selected and play well is my biggest aim this year.”
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