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FEATURE Gatland playing the long game but Wales must start moving forwards

Gatland playing the long game but Wales must start moving forwards
1 week ago

Former football manager Joe Royle once lamented being a team boss was “the only job in the world where everyone knows better. I would never tell a plumber, a lawyer or a journalist how to do his job, but they all know better than me every Saturday.”

It is fair to say the announcement of Warren Gatland’s Wales squad for the games against South Africa and Australia hasn’t prompted every rugby follower from Denbigh to Dunvant to take to the streets and turn cartwheels while peeling off a verse or three of Happy Days Are Here Again.

None of which will bother Gatland one jot, for the 60-year-old tends not to be troubled by what outsiders think. No-one should imagine for a single second the man who omitted Brian O’Driscoll from the 2013 series decider between the Lions and Australia was hunched over his laptop, soaking in the reaction and becoming increasingly consumed by self-doubt. It isn’t the way he works.

He tends to let results speak for themselves. The problem is, aside from fine wins over Fiji and Australia at the World Cup, over the past 18 months Wales’ results have been on the wrong side of abysmal, with just one victory in 10 Six Nations outings and a home hiding at the hands of South Africa in which Gatland’s team conceded 52 points.

Are enough quality players available to the national coach these days, after Justin Tipuric – the best player by some distance in the Judgement Day matches last weekend – Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar, Ken Owens and Josh Navidi were among those who called it a day on the Test scene, while Taulupe Faletau has been injured? Pretty much every country would be pushed to replace players of such calibre.

There again, Gatland knew what he was signing up for and the scale of the rebuild ahead.

Now he is playing the long game and hoping his faith in youth will eventually pay dividends: short-term pain for long-term gain. Fortunately for him, the WRU seem to have moved on from the days when a couple of Wales defeats would prompt a chain of events which tended to end badly for the national coach. But the assumption is even the seemingly tolerant crew heading up Welsh rugby will want to see clear evidence of progress in the year ahead.

Williams may be 33 but he has been lightly played over his career because of injuries and Gatland believes he can make the 2027 World Cup.

So what of the squad just named? Contrary to what many might feel, it does contain a number of pluses, among them the inclusion of Ben Thomas, with the Cardiff centre or fly-half boasting a package of skills that could add welcome fizz to the Wales backline. Last weekend, he came close to pulling the Ospreys defence apart with the range and accuracy of his passing.

He has a kicking game, too, plus on-pitch awareness. The son of former British middleweight boxing champion Pat Thomas didn’t miss a tackle against the Ospreys either, but it is in the creativity department he most excels: unsurprising for a youngster who cites Quade Cooper as his rugby inspiration.

The reappearance of Liam Williams means Wales have an experienced head to help develop the likes of Cameron Winnett, Josh Hathaway and Keelan Giles. Williams may be 33 but he has been lightly played over his career because of injuries and Gatland believes he can make the 2027 World Cup. With his x-factor, courage and ability in the air, allied to knowhow picked up over more than a decade in Test rugby, he should be an asset.

Then there’s the double lift of Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake returning after the pair missed the Six Nations through injury. There were some who felt Morgan had a quiet game against Cardiff last time out, but his match statistics suggested otherwise, with four passes and eight carries yielding 23 metres and four beaten defenders, as well as 24 tackles. If that adds up to a quiet shift, perhaps we should all run for cover when Morgan starts making a noise. 

Jac Morgan
The return of Jac Morgan for the summer tour of Australia is a significant boost for Wales (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

In Taine Plumtree and Christ Tshiunza, Wales could have the big blindside flanker they have been searching for, though we await conclusive evidence on that score. Suffice to say each has potential to establish themselves on the Test scene.

Fresh blood comes into the set-up in the form of Hathaway, Ellis Bevan and Jacob Beetham, with the uncapped Giles also included. All four have talent, but Test rugby is 10 flights up from what they have been used to and it could take time for them to adapt.

What to make of Cory Hill’s return? The 32-year-old hasn’t featured in a Test since being named among a group of men who damaged a woman’s house in 2021. He wasn’t charged by police but apologised and Wales say they have moved past the episode. Some will take issue with Hill’s return, while others will accept it. A shortage of locks because of injuries, unavailability and Will Rowlands being rested has helped his cause in a rugby sense, and though he has been playing lower-division rugby in Japan, he boasts the priceless quality of experience at a time when Wales are not overly blessed on that score. 

Sam Costelow is gutsy and brave but he’s had a bumpy season, not helped by injury, and needs a convincing performance or three to top up his confidence and show he has what it takes to operate at Test level.

The omission of Nicky Smith has caused much gnashing of teeth. When asked about the prop, Gatland didn’t exactly wax lyrical, saying: “Nicky’s done all right” and “we know what Nicky can do.”

For additional detail, perhaps Wales should ask Frans Malherbe what Smith can do. When the mountainous South Africa and Stormers tighthead came across Smith in the URC in April, the Welshman caused him problems. 

Being an in-out player with Wales over the years hasn’t helped the Swansea-born front-rower at Test level, but it still seems more than a shade odd he doesn’t appear to be rated among the top three looseheads in the country.

And the tighthead situation looks even more troubling. In time, maybe Archie Griffin will develop into a serious player, but right now Wales seem shy of a Test-level scrummager, with Tomas Francis still not back on the scene.

Explaining the call to pass over Morgan Morris for what seems the 101st time, Gatland cited the work he needs to do off the ball, but only one Welsh player, Liam Belcher, has made more tackles than the Ospreys number eight in the URC this season. You really do ask yourself, if not now for Morris, when? 

Morgan Morris
Morgan Morris remains without a Test cap despite consistently strong performances for the Ospreys (Photo Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

At fly-half, Wales are not overly blessed, so the absence of Ioan Lloyd is a surprise. Dan Edwards had a fine game against Cardiff but is still developing. His time will come, but rushing him wouldn’t benefit anyone.

While Lloyd misses out, his regional pal Sam Costelow holds his place. Costelow is gutsy and brave but he’s had a bumpy season, not helped by injury, and needs a convincing performance or three to top up his confidence and show he has what it takes to operate at Test level. Right now, the jury is still deliberating.

His Scarlets team-mate Johnny Williams is unlucky not to be involved after some strong displays at regional level.

Ultimately, these are Gatland’s choices, the calls that will determine whether the coming months amount to a bright new dawn or a continuation of the mediocrity we saw during the Six Nations. 

It’s overdue for Wales to start moving forward again. It shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Comments

2 Comments
J
John 12 days ago

The squad is baffling but the excuses by Gatland are even more so. As you point out, Morris is the second highest tackler behind Belcher, yet Gats implies that he needs to do more work in defence. It doesn’t add up. Small players are constantly ignored, yet Aaron Smith, Faf de Klerk and Cheslin Kolbe light up the game. Ospreys players don’t play well against fully loaded teams according to Gats, yet the won in Jo’burg against the Lions and Cape Town against the Stormers. In fact, they have 4 wins out of 5 against the South African teams this season. Then he takes a player from the 4th tier of the Japanese league. Are they fully loaded in the 4th tier in Japan? Hardly! Nothing makes any sense.

D
David 12 days ago

The most baffling squad in years. 4 hookers, 5 tight heads but couldn’t squeeze an extra spot in for Nicky Smith? Picks some of the the most penalised props in the URC in Mathias and O’Connor. Second row I can only hope that when Beard, Davies, Fender, and Williams are fit, Hill, Screech and Carter are absent from the squad although the inclusion of Screech shouldn’t even happen with a bulk of injuries in the position. One fly half has he been speaking to Jones about the best way to get sacked after his resignation wasn’t accepted after we lost to Italy. To say the fly halves in Wales are too small and then pick Tompkins is a (insert superlative) not going to do much for the confidence of Lloyd, Reed or Edwards by saying doesn’t matter how good you guys get i’m not picking you because you can’t grow taller. Centre; Llewlyn, Williams, James all could of added good bulk to the centre spot. Back three don’t like picking Hathaway just to cap him when he said no to Wales u20s to play for England.

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