When New Zealand won the 2015 World Cup amidst scenes of unbridled triumph, if you looked around the squad, arms held aloft, six members of a squad, that remember, contained 11 players over 30, who would never pull the Silver Fern on again.
Headed by their rugged captain, Richie McCaw, and backed up by mercurial No 10 Dan Carter, explosive inside-centre Ma’a Nonu and classy No 13 Conrad Smith, the All Blacks also had ever durable hooker Keven Mealamu and tighthead Ben Franks on the bench. When the sextet unlaced their boots in the annals of Twickenham, 636 Test caps were lost from the experience bank with the click of a finger.
The conditions were slightly different for Wales’ Golden Generation but the parallels are clear. In Yokohama in the 76th minute, one of South Africa’s seven squad players over 30, Francois Louw put in an expert steal to puncture Warren Gatland’s dream send-off, leaving incoming coach Wayne Pivac with the sensitive task of deciding when some of Wales’ greatest ever players needed to be shepherding away from the Test stage.
WATCH: Who We Are – Being Welsh #Isuzu RugbyPass were lucky enough to meet Welsh Rugby legends James Hook and Shane Williams.
There was no mass clear-out for this year’s Six Nations. Indeed, in the postponed game against Scotland, seven players named were over 30; Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, Hadleigh Parkes and Leigh Halfpenny.
In the Autumn, if rugby has returned to a semblance of normality, Jonathan Davies, the two-time Lion and for many, the best 13 in world rugby will return from another long-term layoff. How Pivac manages their workload and decides, crucially, when they’ve run their course, will be integral to whether Wales can compete for the World Cup in France. He will know experience wins the biggest prize, so not getting the right age profile will pivotal to Wales’ hopes. Starting with Alun Wyn Jones, RugbyPass gauges the chances of the big eight of making it to the 2023 World Cup and the likely successors in the Welsh shirt.
Alun Wyn Jones 138 caps | Current age 34, 6mths | Age at 2023 World Cup 37yrs 11mths |
Only Alun Wyn Jones will know when he feels the body has taken enough punishment but you wonder whether private conversations over his succession have taken place. A triple-Grand Slam winner, three-time Lions tourist and current Wales captain, Alun Wyn’s ability to get through 80 minutes and top the tackle charts, as he did in the World Cup are part of legend but after the Lions tour – if selected – the next time he’s in action for Wales, in the Autumn of 2021 he will be 36 and one would think, ready to hand over the baton. If that comes to pass, one of Wales’ greatest modern-day leaders will surely be offered a career in punditry, top-level coaching or administration.
Most likely replacement: Cory Hill
It’s been an injury-hit last 12 months for Hill, who had become a mainstay in the Welsh squad in the preceding two years, so much so that Warren Gatland changed his World Cup selection in order to give the Maesycoed-born, second-row-cum blindside every opportunity to prove his fitness. Not the biggest of locks, Hill is a skilful ball-carrier with enough ability to happily cover at No 6, as Courtney Lawes does for England. His point-of-difference is his leadership which will be key when AWJ steps aside.
Young buck: Rhys Davies
The 21-year-old 6ft 6in, 18st lock has made the switch from Bath to his home region the Ospreys, where he will soak up any advice from AWJ and Bradley Davies and vie with Adam Beard for regional and potentially Test game-time. A bright future is promised.
Chances of making France 2023: 3/10
Ken Owens, 77 caps | Current age 33, 2mths | age at 2023 World Cup 36yrs 9mths
There’s a Master’s of the Universe character called Ram Man who will charge, head-down into any immovable object. For Wales, that mantle is taken up by Ken ‘Cannonball’ Owens who has put his body on the line, time after time, to become their most-capped hooker. Owens told this writer at 18 he modelled his game on Keith Wood and his ability to lead by example, wear his heart on his sleeve and even cover at No 8 mark him out as the ultimate team-man. An experienced captain with the Scarlets, Owens is a key voice in Wales’ leadership team. The question is, how long can the battered body take such punishment?
Most likely replacement: Elliot Dee
Before this year’s Six Nations, Dee held the world record for the most Test appearances in a year, with 16 appearances, but 14 of those came from the bench, where he has become known for his tub-thumping cameos, similar to Jamie George before usurping Dylan Hartley. Seven years Owens’ junior, Dee has all the trademarks of Test class hooker. He’s mobile, skilful and brave and primed to take the baton from Owens in the next 12-18mths.
Young buck: Dewi Lake
When Wales U20 captain Dewi Lake spoke passionately about the pride in playing for Wales after beating the Baby Blacks last year, he bore all the hallmarks of a potential future Wales captain. The 6ft 1in, 17st converted backrow has had to work on the technicalities of the set-piece but his involvement in Wales’ recent Six Nations squad tell of a promising future. Current No 3 in the pecking order, Ryan Elias will be keeping him honest.
Chances of making France: 4/10
Hadleigh Parkes 29 caps | Current age 32 6mths | Age at 2023 World Cup 35yrs 11mths
When Hadleigh Parkes finally decides to head back to Huntersville, New Zealand, he will be able to look fondly on an extended backpacking trip that led to a hatful of Welsh caps, all over the age of 30. A Grand Slam and a World Cup semi-final appearance, trussed up in more tape than an Egyptian Mummy, point to a player who gave his all to the Welsh cause. A lover of the hard graft on the gainline, he’s not known to be the most creative of players, so Wayne Pivac may feel a changing of the guard required in 2021.
Most likely replacement: Nick Tompkins
Wales’ breakthrough star of the Six Nations, Tompkins is more than capable of playing with a 12 or 13 on his back and while his long-term position maybe at outside-centre, a mooted partnership with Jonathan Davies has Welsh fans salivating. Quick off the mark, with one of the best passing games in rugby, Tompkins overcame a patchy defensive performance against Ireland to become one of Wales’ most exciting finds in years.
Young buck: Ben Thomas
There is a concern about midfield stocks running lower than a supermarket toilet roll isle in Wales but the 21-year-old No 12, Thomas is as an option to step up to the next level. A breakthrough year for the Cardiff Blues has seen the former fly-half cope with aplomb as a second-receiver style inside-centre. Still with L-Plates on at professional level, he has undoubted potential.
Chances of making France: 1/10
Jonathan Davies 81 caps | Age 31 11mths | Age at 2023 World Cup 35yrs 5mths
A Rolls-Royce of centres, Jonathan Davies is currently overcoming his fourth major injury in a professional career that started in his teens. If he can return to his previous form – and there’s no suggestion he can’t – the No 13 shirt is waiting for him. A brilliant defender of the 13 channel, Davies has a cultured left-boot and hammer fend, which make him one of the most respected professionals in world rugby. Post-Lions, discussions will have to be had about whether 2023 is a year too far for the Bancyfelin legend.
Most likely replacement: Owen Watkin
Watkin must have watched on with some bemusement as Nick Tompkins made a lasting impression in this year’s Six Nations. For 18 months, the Ospreys centre was the understudy to the Parkes and Davies duo and an injury against Racing 92 saw Tompkins fast-tracked in the pecking order. Still only 23, Watkin has all the facets of a Test-class centre but needs to make the step up to starter in the next 12 months.
Young buck: Corey Baldwin
Rob Baxter is a shrewd judge of character, so when he said Baldwin, 21, was ‘something special’ it pays to sit up and take notice. Having left the comforting bosom of the Scarlets, where he was highly-regarded, the No 13, who has the raw pace to play on the wing, will be mixing with the likes of Jack Nowell, Alex Cuthbert and Stuart Hogg in a star-studded team. Baxter is convinced he has a big future ahead of him.
Chances of making France: 4/10
Rhys Webb 35 caps | age 31, 3mths | Age at 2023 World Cup 34yrs 9mths
There were some who doubted Rhys Webb would ever return to the Welsh shirt, after it was kept warm by Gareth Davies and latterly Tomos Williams, in his French absence but the Bridgend-born scrum-half does not lack in the self-belief department and from his first involvements with the Welsh squad, Wayne Pivac complimented his communication and game management. While he was rusty against Italy, some game time with Bath saw a much-improved performance against England showing he still has much to offer Wales in the near future. A bold snipe for the Lions squad must be in his thoughts.
Most likely replacement: Tomos Williams
This Six Nations was something of a false-start for the Treorchy-born scrum-half. Widely expected to make the No 9 shirt his own, an uncharacteristic spill against Ireland and a muted performance against France saw Webb shining in the second-half against England. Massively talented with otherworldly handling skills and plenty of niggle, the three-way battle with Gareth Davies and Webb over the next 18 months will be seismic.
Young buck: Harri Morgan
The Maesteg-born scrum-half is only 20 and far from the finished article, but the first player to play for the Ospreys born this century, has verve around the fringes, a smart kicking game and is powerful in contact despite his slender frame.
Chances of making France: 5/10
Leigh Halfpenny 89 caps | Age 31, 3mths | Age at 2023 World Cup 34yrs 9mths
He may not possess the dash of yesteryear when his first 13 caps saw him plunder seven tries on the left-flank but if there’s a braver or more positionally-sound full-back in world rugby, then we have yet to see him. Halfpenny surveys the backfield like a sweeper, nullifying probing kicks with aplomb and also takes the high-ball adroitly, despite his modest-frame. Halfpenny has enjoyed an Indian Summer of a Welsh career that had its warm tributes being written more than once. He was one of Wales’ stronger performers in the Six Nations but a wider-squad place beckons.
Most likely replacement: Liam Williams
Close friends with Halfpenny, Liam Williams will join his friend back at the Scarlets from next season and the two will vie for the No 15 shirt, which most feel is the former scaffolder’s best position. Happy to play on the left-wing, before injury at the World Cup, ‘Sanjay’ had made the full-back jersey his own and the multi-decorated former Saracens was a star of the 2017 Lions tour.
Young buck: Mat Protheroe
While Protheroe, the fleet-footed back three player has headed back to Swansea with the Ospreys to provide much-needed cover the for the ever-dependable Dan Evans, Welsh scouts will also be keeping a keen eye on Ioan Lloyd’s progression at Ashton Gate. At 23, Protheroe is an evasive runner and will get the first hit wrenching the No 15 jersey from either Williams or Halfpenny.
Chances of making France: 2/10
Justin Tipuric 76 caps |Age 30 years 7mths | Age at 2023 World Cup 34yrs 1mth
So long in the shadow of Sam Warburton, Tipuric’s last game against England, where he scored two tries, drew the Trebanos-tyro alongside his storied backrow rival in caps and in recent years, he has reminded everyone of his worth with a series of brilliant performances. He doesn’t possess the Popeye-like arms of Sam Underhill or Tom Curry, but his handling skills, quick mind, leadership qualities and engine are of the top-order. It’s the most competitive position in Wales, yet Tipuric, is currently unrivalled.
Most likely replacement: Aaron Wainwright
Another breakthrough star from the World Cup, Wainwright, at 22, still has refinements to make to his game, with his timing at the breakdown a work-on but with Warburton at close quarters, along with Justin Tipuric, Wainwright could be a hybrid of the two. Robin McBryde suggested he could be even better than his breakdown coach and the former footballer’s ‘box-to-box’ engine, speed and physicality could see him settle into the No 7 shirt for years to come. If Ellis Jenkins can regain his form after a long injury-lay off, he could be a huge part of the conversation, while Taine Basham is worth mentioning in dispatches.
Young buck: Tommy Reffell
Winner of Premiership Cup breakthrough Player of the Year award, Pencoed-born Reffell, has been getting rave reviews from the English Premiership and the 21-year-old will know at some point he has to move home. With similar characteristics to Sam Warburton, his backrow partner at Tigers, Guy Thompson, went even further by suggesting he thinks Reffell is the ‘future of Welsh rugby’.
Chances of making France: 6/10
Dan Biggar 83 caps | Age 30 years 5mths | Age at 2023 World Cup 33yrs 11mths
A few were writing Biggar’s epitaph when Gareth Anscombe led Wales to a Grand Slam last year but the gifted pivot’s knee injury has seen Biggar start the last 14 Tests for Wales and share enough moments of class – the flick between the legs against Italy was sublime – to believe that this arch-competitor, who scored tries against France and England, has plenty of competitive zeal left in the tank. It’s about time Biggar was appreciated for what he brings to the party, rather than what he’s missing. Likely to be battling with every sinew of his body for Wales recognition for some time yet.
Most likely replacement: Gareth Anscombe
Anscombe was the ying to Biggar’s yang. The slightly-built, jet-heeled No 10 who could unpick defences with a deft chip over the top or with the shimmy of the hips, but he had his dreams dashed with his season-ending injury against England in the summer. When fully recovered, his skills should still be in demand and a likely resumption of the fly-half rivalry with Biggar will entail.
Young buck: Sam Costelow
Sam Costelow’s one-man destruction of England U20 was always going to garner rave reviews and his subsequent move to the Ospreys for next season has done nothing to dampen fans ardour towards the nimble-footed No 10, who at 19, is four years, Jarrod Evans’ junior. So highly-rated, he was called in to train with the Wales senior squad during the Six Nations.
Chances of making France: 5/10
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