Select Edition

Northern Northern
Southern Southern
Global Global
NZ NZ

FEATURE Will 'risk-taker' Gatland gamble on 'adventurer' Lloyd?

Will 'risk-taker' Gatland gamble on 'adventurer' Lloyd?
7 months ago

Graham Henry once prompted 5,000 pairs of eyebrows to be raised in unison at The Gnoll in Neath when he named a player who had featured for just 20 minutes off the bench as his man of the match in a game in the late 1990s.

“I didn’t see that coming,” said a supporter sitting close to the press box.

“That’s why he’s coaching Wales and you are not,” said the man’s friend.

Not every player-of-the-game call requires such distinctive insight. Sometimes, the top performer on the day is obvious even to the most casual observer.

Cut to the Arms Park last Saturday, when the Scarlets secured an important United Rugby Championship win over Cardiff with 22-year-old Ioan Lloyd their inspiration.

Ioan Lloyd
Ioan Lloyd made his Wales debut as a 19-year-old against Georgia in the Covid-hit autumn of 2020, but has only two caps to his name so far (Photo Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

Want to perplex an alien from another planet? Put him in a time-machine, set the dial to 3pm on 2 December 2023, and tell him that Welsh rugby has no significant candidate for the number 10 shirt ahead of the Six Nations. Within a couple of hours, our extra-terrestrial buddy will be the very definition of confusion.

Lloyd played the house down. One batch of statistics had him down for 24 carries and 90 metres made, with five defenders beaten and 22 passes sent out. He had a hand in all five Scarlets tries, one of which saw him come up with a direct assist. It was Magic Circle stuff from a player who has long been identified as having immense potential. There were also 10 tackles thrown into the mix.

But maybe statistics alone don’t do complete justice to the 22-year-old’s effort.

He also showed he is quick, an essential component for an elite attacking game, and is blessed with an imagination, the gift that separates the few from the many in rugby, allowing him to not only think differently from his peers but to also act in his own unique way.

Lloyd has shown this season he can mix up his play. He is a nice kicker out of hand and is capable of securing territory, but baked into his game seems to be a relish for not just running, but also for chancing his arm.

Mind you, we await with interest to see whether he is to Warren Gatland’s taste.

Wales’ head coach hasn’t always embraced adventurers, something ex-Cardiff full-back Matthew Morgan will vouch for. The diminutive former Osprey, who didn’t need much encouragement to channel his inner Indiana Jones, started against Fiji at the 2015 World Cup in a group game Gatland’s team simply had to nail, with England and Australia also in the pool.

Come out on top they did, but one moment chilled the head coach to the bone, seeing his number 15 opt to run from beneath the shadow of his own posts before being collared by the opposition. Wales managed to clear the danger, but post-match quotes suggested Gatland was not even within a space flight of Zen calm in that moment. Think Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream and you might get a more accurate picture. Morgan didn’t play for Wales again.

Lloyd has shown this season he can mix up his play. He is a nice kicker out of hand and is capable of securing territory, but baked into his game seems to be a relish for not just running, but also for chancing his arm.

Ioan Lloyd scores a try for Bristol
Lloyd’s versatility saw him play at full-back, wing, centre and fly-half for Bristol before joining the Scarlets (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

Two moments in Cardiff underlined as much. The first saw him collect the ball near his posts and dash straight across field for 30 metres before identifying a potential gap in the opposition line, selling the hint of a dummy and straightening up so sharply the manoeuvre almost came with a screeching sound. Smooth acceleration then saw him motor 45 metres upfield before a kick deep into opposition territory.

Emboldened, Lloyd later countered from behind his own line. If Scarlets’ head coach Dwayne Peel was in any way unclear about what the concept of living on the edge entails, Lloyd’s performance would have surely have filled that particular gap in his knowledge.

“When you have a player like Ioan Lloyd, I don’t think he knows what he’s going to do, so how are the defence going to know what he’s going to do?”

Cardiff team boss Matt Sherratt was impressed, describing the Scarlets fly-half as a triple threat – kick-pass-run – while there was also a glowing endorsement from former Wales number 10 James Hook on BBC Wales’ Scrum V programme. “He was brilliant,” Hook said. “When you have a player like Ioan Lloyd, I don’t think he knows what he’s going to do, so how are the defence going to know what he’s going to do?”

But the big question is what Gatland is going to do. He is back home in New Zealand for his December break ahead of the Six Nations, but will doubtless have seen a recording of the Scarlets’ win in the Welsh capital. Certainly, the form of the ex-Bristol man widens his options at a time when Wales have seen Dan Biggar retire from Test rugby and Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell commit to moves overseas.

Callum Sheedy
Callum Sheedy, who is back in form for Bristol, has 16 caps and won a Six Nations title with Wales in 2021 (Photo Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

But does Lloyd fit the Gatland template?

Some might doubt whether the man from Hamilton on New Zealand’s North Island starts every team meeting with the word ‘swashbuckling’ at the top of his wish-list for players to be.  There again, Shane Williams was a key figure in Gatland’s early Wales teams, and the great wing wasn’t exactly a beacon of conservatism. In the summer the Wales coach himself disputed the notion he was overly cautious with his player choices, saying in a Telegraph column: “Despite what some people think, I am not normally conservative in my selections – I am actually a risk-taker.”

The case of Lloyd will put those words to the test.

Gatland may feel it is too soon to draft him into the set-up, and if there are any doubts about his ability to manage play, then he will need to eliminate those before a call comes. In the meantime, we can still enjoy what he offers

There again, it could be argued that now is the time to be experimenting, at the start of the new rugby cycle, rather than further down the line when the next World Cup is hurtling towards us and folk are starting to get twitchy from Bethesda to Bridgend.

Fly-half options for Wales have started to emerge. Callum Sheedy is doing his cause no harm with his efforts for Bristol, most recently in the big win over Gloucester. The 16-cap player barely put a foot wrong in his team’s 51-26 success. His was a dominant display, news of which would also have travelled 12,000 miles to Gatland. At 28 and with more than 150 matches for Bristol to his name, Sheedy has a bank of experience to call on and plenty of skill. Why wouldn’t all that count for plenty?

Sam Costelow should also be back early in the new year. Lloyd’s Scarlets team-mate looked quite the part before picking up a couple of injuries playing for Wales against the Barbarians last month. He is quick, alive to opportunities and has been growing as a game-manager. He also has a head-start on his rivals in that he went to the World Cup under Gatland and the coach had a close-up opportunity to see what he could do.

Owen Williams? It’s probably fair to say he needs to up his game. There were odd flashes of quality from him for the Ospreys against Benetton in Italy, but the occasional mistake, too, and he had an uncharacteristically off-night in front of the sticks. While there’s still time for him to put matters right, he can’t afford too many more off-beam performances.

Sam Costelow
Sam Costelow is currently injured but may have a head start in the race to succeed Dan Biggar at No 10 after featuring in the World Cup (Photo Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images)

Right now, though, Lloyd is the one catching the eye.

Gatland may feel it is too soon to draft him into the set-up, and if there are any doubts about his ability to manage play, then he will need to eliminate those before a call comes. In the meantime, we can still enjoy what he offers.

“We haven’t seen a Welsh outside-half do this for a long time,” enthused Hook as he watched the clip of Lloyd taking a pass five metres behind his own line and opting to take off, with Cardiff defenders in full WTF – as in ‘what the flip is happening?’ – mode.

Special to see. Now, let’s see what the national selectors make of it all.

They have many big decisions to make for the Six Nations opener against Scotland on 3 February, but none bigger than the choice at number 10.

The call there will tell us much about Wales’ likely direction of travel for the coming seasons.

If the selection goes a certain way, it could be quite a ride.

Comments

1 Comment
W
William 224 days ago

Ioan Lloyd has been nurtured well in Bristol by Pat Lamb.He undoubtedly has the X factor and deserves to be given his opportunity.

Join free and tell us what you really think!

Sign up for free
Search