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FEATURE Wales' depleted squad is looking for a new captain, so who steps up?

Wales' depleted squad is looking for a new captain, so who steps up?
10 months ago

Remember the days when Sam Warburton could trundle off, and watching on, you’d go “Ah, Alun Wyn’s taken the captaincy then”? And then when Alun-Wyn Jones went off you’d go “Ken Owens will take the armband now”. Then when Davies went off you’d think “Well it must be Jonathan Davies now”. And then when Wales make their suspicious fifth substitution to a captain in this hypothetical game, you’d clock that the obvious captain to finish the job is Justin Tipuric.

Don’t those days feel like so long ago? The days when Wales were rammed with Test cap centurions and stocked with several obvious leadership options, and you could afford to think “It’s mad that the likes of Josh Navidi have never had a go” because there were so many choices above him.

Now, we live in the age of Wales having all of their senior players retire at once, plus a handful out injured, and a couple out of favour. There isn’t a stand-out choice in the squad to lead Cymru to the Rugby World Cup this September – so what are Warren Gatland’s options?

Gatland has made two things clear – one: he’s open to the possibility of having co-captains; well, on the assumption that Wales have multiple players left in their squad by the World Cup. And two: there are massive benefits to one of his captains being a young player. The aforementioned Warburton was given the national captaincy at the age of 22, and he didn’t do such a shabby job, did he?

Sam Warburton
Sam Warburton was picked by Gatland to lead Wales into the 2011 Rugby World Cup at just 22 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

So let’s assess the possible combinations of captains Gatland could call upon.

Dan Biggar

Possibly the only back in the squad who is both experienced and vocal enough, particularly to referees, to take the captaincy. His brief term as Wales captain in the Pivac era didn’t necessarily go to plan, as seemingly he found the job to be predominantly take up giving tough interviews – including after losing to Italy. To brand Biggar’s first stint as captain as unsuccessful wouldn’t be dramatically unfair. He did the best he could with the hand he was dealt.

That said, though; Biggar is immensely mentally tough and doesn’t seem to feel the pressure in difficult situations. If Gatland does opt for co-captains, Biggar will surely be the one to stomach the awkward media duties and off-field responsibilities as a younger captain beds in. If there’s anything Biggar can do to shine as a leader, it’s to take pressure off others. It has been as much as confirmed that this World Cup will be Biggar’s final campaign for Wales – and there are much worse ideas than having a player at the end of his career guide another at the start of theirs.

Dan Biggar
Biggar has always been very vocal with referees but his a hugely respected figure in Test rugby (Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

Dewi Lake

Everything about Lake screams captain-in-waiting. His demeanour, his playing style, his ability to step up to big occasions. He proved in South Africa last year that he is one of Wales’ key players, either off the bench or starting. With Ken Owens’ injury, Lake is suddenly too good not to play for as long as he can stand. He is without doubt the most exciting thing about Welsh men’s rugby right now, and it isn’t even close.

The only difficulty is the small matter of experience. Granted, he captained the Wales U20s when they defeated the Baby Blacks in 2019, but he hasn’t captained the Ospreys yet. By the time Sam Warburton was handed the armband, he at least had a handful of Cardiff games as skipper under his belt. Nobody doubts that he would do a great job. It would be unsurprising to see him even take the role full-time in the next two seasons. But Wales captain? It feels like a big jump. It feels inevitable that he will take the senior job one day – but is it too soon for Lake? Maybe. Maybe not if he has an experienced co-captain alongside him.

Taulupe Faletau

One of very few calm, experienced heads in the squad; very much in the same mould as Biggar. Faletau has been Wales’ most dependable player for twelve years now, and it’s hard to think of a single job he wouldn’t excel at, including squad leadership.

In his younger days, Faletau always came across as being introverted – much unlike his counterpart Biggar. This isn’t necessarily a bad quality for a captain to have, but his co-captain would ideally have to be someone on the opposing end of the spectrum. Faletau’s only assignment skippering his country thus far came in a big win against Italy in the Six Nations. It was far from the toughest gig of Faletau’s career so far, and an extremely different kettle of fish to being squad captain at a World Cup. Anyone would follow Faletau into battle, there’s no doubting that. But is he the man to front all the stress of the media for the next six months? It feels unlikely.

Taulupe Faletau
Taulupe Faletau’s class is not up for discussion but is he vocal enough to skipper Wales (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Jac Morgan

This one is difficult to quantify. As a player, he has all the qualities of a Tipuric or a Warburton. Fantastic at the breakdown, great carrier and most importantly: capable of coming up with huge moments in tight games, when his team needed it most.

Much like Lake, Morgan hasn’t captained at club level. And unlike Lake, he hasn’t done it at u20s level. Morgan feels like an option worth investing in for the future, but unless he’s complemented by a Faletau or Biggar, it feels unlikely that now is the time for him.

Adam Beard

Beard feels like the perfect middle ground between a Lake/Morgan and a Faletau/Biggar. He doesn’t have much large-scale experience leading the Ospreys in big games, but he has taken the captaincy mid-game for Wales on a couple of occasions.

The main selling point for Beard is the amount of big wins he’s been at the heart of, particularly in 2019. He’s been responsible for calling the lineouts in some of the biggest games in Welsh rugby history, and was an integral part of one of Wales’ greatest teams ever. Stepping up to becoming a full-time skipper would be an exceptional leap, so he’s not a front-runner; but as a supporting member of the leadership group, you could do much worse.

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