There is a frisson of excitement preceding any squad announcement for the Six Nations, but it has been amplified for Wales by the fact they have a new coaching set-up for the first time since 2008. 

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After late November’s handy dress-rehearsal against the Barbarians, Wayne Pivac knows the rules have changed for his next assignment. His picks will be pored over by an expectant public, with precious little patience for ‘squad building and blooding new players’. 

With that in mind, RugbyPass are joining the melee and offering their considered view on the 38-man squad primed to defend Wales’ Six Nations title…

Thank you, England…

Yes, we’re being generous if we say the Welsh enjoy a wholly cordial rivalry with their rivals over the border, but they have in truth much to thank their neighbours for. Clearly, their selections suggest in recent months the Welsh have been conducting cross-border reconnaissance that would have made the Viet Cong proud. 

The talent ID corps deserve credit for unearthing Will Rowlands and Nick Tompkins, while Sale’s mammoth tighthead WillGriff John has been plucked from the northern heartlands after taking a circuitous route to Test rugby. With regard to Tomkins, such was Wales’ head-scrambling crisis in midfield that there could be a hastily erected statue to ‘Granny Enid’ in Wrexham town centre if he realises the potential he has shown at Saracens.

(Continue reading below…) 

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Wayne Pivac announces his Wales Six Nations squad

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Those data-driven boffins at OPTA have informed us that the centre tops the charts for tries, metres carried and defenders beaten in the Gallagher Premiership since 2018 and it appears to be a genuine steal from under Eddie Jones’ nose. A life post-Jonathan Davies has to be considered and stiff competition for Owen Watkin will prove beneficial. 

In the engine room, Rowlands is the Oxford-educated bolter. At over 19st, the 6ft 8in lock tackles himself to exhaustion and has the sort of size that sees him stoop under doorways. Interestingly, he is a player Pivac has tracked since 2015 and at 28, he will be vying with the likes of Jake Ball, Adam Beard and Cory Hill to fill the cavernous Alun-Wyn Jones-sized hole ahead of France 2023.

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Welcome back old friends…

For all the hoopla generated by jet-heeled back-three players in the squad – something we’ll get to that later – the inclusion of a Mr T Faletau and Mr R Webb is timely. It’s over two years since both players represented their country in tandem, and it should be noted that Faletau and Webb dovetailed beautifully at the base of the scrum. 

Memories of Webb skirting around the English cover defence in 2015 at the Principality Stadium, after Faletau had scooped up a ball from a retreating scrum, are still fresh in the memory. The pair possess that coveted intangible – X-factor – and while the returning No9 has been usurped by Tomos Williams and Gareth Davies while on French leave, Faletau’s absence has been more keenly felt. 

There is simply no back row with the multitude of skills he possesses – whether it’s roaming the wide channels, working the feet with short carries around the fringes or felling willing runners. There’s precious little the No8 can’t do. For many, he will be the most important name in the Welsh squad. 

Webb, for his part, will have been enticed back into Test rugby for a reason knowing he has an almighty battle to pull on the Welsh shirt again and it will only lift standards. Wales’ scrum-half depth will be the envy of the tournament.

Bringing sexy back…

You’d have to possess a stone heart not to be lifted by the inclusion of Louis Rees-Zammit. The fleet-footed 18-year-old has been lifting bums off seats in Gloucester with regularity this season, scoring nine tries, and while Pivac may have agonised over whether to include him at such a tender age, he has given in to temptation. 

The good thing for Wales is Zammit isn’t the only crowd-pleaser included. Josh Adams is in white-hot form, Johnny McNicholl has the skills to raise the heartbeat and the timely return from injury of Owen Williams has seen a gifted playmaker furnishing the ranks. 

With Tomos Williams a livewire box-of-tricks and Dan Biggar playing some of the best attacking rugby of his career with Northampton, the squad has no shortage of flair. You could say it is a pronounced departure from the Gatland era and very much has the stamp of a Pivac and Stephen Jones production. 

While Wales’ cutting edge seems promising, a word of caution is required. It remains to be seen how watertight Wales will be in defence and questions marks remain how the squad will function without its anchor Tomas Francis at the helm. 

How Byron Hayward and Jonathan Humphreys replicate the stellar work of Shaun Edwards and Robin McBryde will go some way to determining whether Wales retain their Six Nations title.

Evolution not revolution…

Any new World Cup cycle is met with a raft of new faces with the French, as usual, taking the lead with 19 uncapped call-ups. For Wales, there was simply no need to disassemble a squad that had reached the semi-finals of the World Cup three months earlier. 

The likes of Rees-Zammit, Owen Lane, Aaron Wainwright and Rhys Carre are all 22 or under but Pivac’s pragmatic side will know that the Six Nations is a secular beast and momentum is key. 

For that reason, it will be reassuring that Wales have an experienced spine of Ken Owens, Jones, Justin Tipuric, Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny in the squad to give quiet assurance in times of duress that will undoubtedly come against England and Ireland, far away from the home comforts of Cardiff. 

While some of those stalwarts may not make France in 2023, they still have every motivation to excel for Wales with the Lions tour to South Africa only 17 months away.

Gone but not forgotten…

Without divulging specifics, Pivac said that he had made nine calls to players left out of the squad. You would be surprised if the likes of Steff Evans and Sam Davies weren’t on that list. Both have reason to feel hard done by, given their form this season. 

For the likes of Nicky Smith, Aled Davies and Samson Lee, alarm bells will be ringing at their exclusion, given indifferent form and the quality that has replaced them. Unlike Scotland and France, who have had a raft of retirements, Wales’ age-profile is strong. 

While you’d be surprised to see Bradley Davies wearing red again, Wales still have players of genuine quality like James Davies, Ellis Jenkins, Thomas Young and Ollie Griffiths who could come again while first-team regulars Jonathan Davies, Gareth Anscombe and Francis all have enough quality to feature prominently in Wales’ journey towards 2023. For Wales, hope abounds.

The RugbyPass 23 for the Italian opener

15. Johnny McNicholl; 14. Louis Rees-Zammit, 13. Nick Tomkins, 12. Hadleigh Parkes, 11. Josh Adams; 10. Dan Biggar, 9. Tomos Williams; 1. Wyn Jones, 2. Ken Owens, 3. Dillon Lewis, 4. Jake Ball, 5. Alun-Wyn Jones, 6. Aaron Wainwright, 7. Justin Tipuric, 8. Taulupe Faletau. Reps: 16. Rob Evans, 17. Elliot Dee, 18. WillGriff John, 19. Cory Hill, 20. Josh Navidi, 21. Gareth Davies, 22. Owen Williams, 23. Leigh Halfpenny.

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