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FEATURE Where have all the Welsh wings gone?

Where have all the Welsh wings gone?
3 months ago

There’s no need to rev up the battered Reliant Robin or reach for the camel-hair coat that’s at the back of the wardrobe, but, suddenly, wide boys are all the rage again. They seem to be popping up all over the place.

For the avoidance of doubt, that’s wide boys who are adept at selling dummies to opponents rather than those who can be found flogging dodgy goods to unwitting punters on street corners – less Del boy Trotter, more Damian Penaud.

A golden age of wing play is said to be upon us, with virtually every major country boasting No. 11s or No. 14s who can transform matches with a shake of the hips, a touch on the accelerator or a tackle-busting surge that seriously imperils the well-being of would-be tacklers.

The evidence does stack up.

Scotland boast the flyer of the recent Six Nations in Duhan van der Merwe, a 6ft 4in, 16st 7lb unit with  the speed to catch a train accelerating rapidly out of a station and the power to crash through  reinforced brick walls. For good measure, Gregor Townsend also has Kyle Steyn, Kyle Rowe and Darcy Graham as wide options.

France are fortunate to have Damian Penaud and Louis Bielle-Biarrey, plus countless other arrows in their quiver, while South Africa can number Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse on their roster and New Zealand’s wings include Will Jordan and Mark Telea.

Ireland’s stable features James Lowe, Mack Hansen, Calvin Nash. Robert Baloucoune, Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour, while Italy have Monty Ioane and Ange Capouozzo and England’s options include  a potential Test Lion in Immanuel Feyi-Waboso as well as the likes of Joe Cokanasiga, Tommy Freeman, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Max Malins.

Louis Rees-Zammit
Wales were shocked when Louis-Rees Zammit chose to up sticks to the NFL and would welcome him back with open arms (Photo by Gaspafotos/Getty Images)

We could go on. Even below the top tier, there are wing riches to be found, with Georgia having a veritable diamond in Davit Niniashvili, a player who’s as effective near the touchline as he is at full-back.

You get the picture. A lethal finisher out wide is a must-have accessory in the modern Test game. Those blessed with such an asset or three are fortunate indeed.

Rewind to early January and Wales looked set to be well off on that front for the foreseeable future. The whispers were that Cardiff-born-and-raised Feyi-Waboso would commit to the red jersey, potentially forming a potent wing partnership with Louis Rees-Zammit. With Rio Dyer and Josh Adams also in the mix, there appeared a formidable squadron of wingmen assembling.

But the script hasn’t played out that way. Feyi-Waboso declared for England, taking his hyphen as well as his potential with him, while Rees-Zammit took his own hyphen as well as his ambition to America to pursue a dream of playing in the NFL.

Could Wales have done more to convince Feyi-Waboso to align with them? If those in high places in the Welsh Rugby Union are not among the many  pondering that very question, they shouldn’t be in their jobs.

To deepen the problem for Warren Gatland, Adams finished the recent Six Nations saying he had lost confidence during the tournament. Woe, woe and thrice woe, indeed.

Could Wales have done more to convince Feyi-Waboso to align with them? If those in high places in the Welsh Rugby Union are not among the many  pondering that very question, they shouldn’t be in their jobs. For it is no ordinary player Wales have seen slip through their net. It may still be early days, but with his surging speed off the mark and extraordinary power to make metres post-contact, the 21-year-old wears the look of a potentially generational talent.

Johnny McNicholl has also taken himself out of the reckoning, having departed the Scarlets to head back to New Zealand to play for the Crusaders. While he didn’t quite break through with Wales, not helped by the occasional glitch in defence, he could create and finish with the best of them.

The upshot of all this is that Wales are looking decidedly short of Test-quality wings.

Josh Adams
Josh Adams cut a frustrated figure during the Six Nations but has the class to bounce back (Photo by Ian Cook – Getty Images)

Rio Dyer had a decent Six Nations and Gatland will hope Adams returns to form, with the Cardiff man finding tries hard to come by for his country of late. Of course there are many other aspects to a wing’s role, but, as with a striker in football, scoring is vitally important and the record books tell us that Adams has managed just one touchdown over his last 18 Tests, a statistic that will not please a player who once crossed 13 times for Wales over a 12-month period. Still, the likeable west Walian boasts experience and Gatland evidently believes he will come good again.

What else below those two? Mason Grady has plenty of admirers, but Wales seem set on using him in the centre in the post-George North era and it’s uncertain that there’s a route back into the set-up for either Steff Evans or Luke Morgan. The national coaches are also taking time to be convinced by Keelan Giles, while Alex Cuthbert seems trapped in a never-ending injury hell. Mat Protheroe? He is quick, elusive and capable of unsettling defences, but he’s also had bumps at the wrong time and it’s unclear if he’s come close to figuring on Gatland’s radar at any point.

Arms Park whizzer Theo Cabango is quick but may lack size, although Wales once used Shane Williams as the fulcrum of their attacking game.

There was hope a while back for the Scarlets’ Ryan Conbeer, but his star doesn’t seem high in the sky these days, with the same applying to another west Walian in Tom Rogers and also to Cardiff’s Owen Lane. Arms Park whizzer Theo Cabango is quick but may lack size, although Wales once used Shane Williams as the fulcrum of their attacking game, while Jared Rosser needs to make the form he showed for the Dragons last weekend his default setting to interest the selectors. Over in Llanelli again, Tomi Lewis is still bedding into the top-class game.

The cupboard doesn’t exactly look bursting with ready-to-use wing delights, then.

It hasn’t always been that way. Glenn Webbe scored 250-plus tries in 404 games over 14 seasons for Bridgend, yet won only 10 Wales caps, with Ieuan Evans, Adrian Hadley, Elgan Rees and Mark Titley among those providing the competition. Pretty much everything master finisher Colin Donovan touched during his time with Maesteg in the late 1970s and early 1980s turned to gold, but he never won a full cap, the fate that befell Gerald Cordle, a player who piled up 166 touchdowns in 194 games for Cardiff and in the process established himself as a living legend at the club without getting a look-in with Wales.

Mason Grady
Mason Grady has the pace to play on the wing but his size could see him slotted into a midfield role with Wales short of carriers (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Bridgend’s Viv Jenkins, a jinking, rapid tormentor of defences, went similarly unrewarded despite a stellar club career. When Wales held their final trial in January 1973, Gerald Davies and John Bevan, both Test Lions, featured for the Probables, with a future Test Lion in JJ Williams and Jenkins lining up for the Possibles. That’s what competition looked like back then.

Gatland can but hope someone will emerge from the pack below Dyer and Adams to put pressure on the pair. The intelligent, skilful Giles has been in form this season, with only Grady having made more clean breaks among Welsh players currently plying their trade in the United Rugby Championship, while it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that the selectors could ask Grady himself to operate as a wing instead of in midfield. But nothing is certain.

Regan Grace? Unproven in union but it would be a significant plus if the cross-coder could start rattling in the five-pointers for his new club Bath. We’ll file him as one to watch

Regan Grace? Unproven in union but it would be a significant plus if the cross-coder could start rattling in the five-pointers for his new club Bath. We’ll file him as one to watch, perhaps, without investing complete hope that he’ll prove the answer.

Their bitter rivals, Gloucester have a 20-year-old wing, Josh Hathaway, who has been raising eyebrows of late, with a stunning solo try against Bristol Bears, raising Liam Williams to give his seal approval. Born in Aberystwyth, he has represented Wales and England at U20 level, and could face the same choice as Feyi-Waboso. Can Wales afford to let another gifted youngster slip through the net? Anyone with a shred of Welsh blood will know the answer.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso
Cardiff born and Cardiff bred, letting Immanuel Feyi-Waboso slip through the net to play for England will sting at the WRU (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Maybe patience will have to be the order of the day. For a country that’s produced wings of the calibre of Gerald Davies, JJ Williams, John Bevan, Ken Jones, Dewi Bebb, Ieuan Evans and Shane Williams in the past, men who operated on the margins and had the happy knack of turning straw into gold, that might add up to quite some challenge.

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Comments

1 Comment
S
Samuel 111 days ago

The fact that there is such strong noise about capping Grace and Hathaway - one who’s never played a professional game of Union, the other who’s played once at Premiership level - suggests that the cupboard is bare and that the Feyi-Waboso situation has rattled some cages (both Grace and Hathaway are England-qualified). Not convinced either would currently definitely accept a call-up if it was offered, although of the two Grace would probably be quicker to commit to Wales.

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