By Shane Williams
Finally, my prayers have been answered! I’ve banged on for so long now about the need for Wales to change up their approach and go for broke with selection and I’m delighted to see Warren Gatland gamble with his latest squad.
It’s about time we rolled the dice with our attacking game and it seems Wales are now moving with the times at last and I couldn’t be more excited about the next month.
Warren’s intent to try to play a wider game couldn’t be more clear unless he had it stamped on his forehead. The selection of so many playmakers – and the dropping of Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams – plus his comments on attempting to throw the ball around a bit more, all make for a real statement of intent with Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa lying in wait.
Wales squads of recent times have been pretty easy to predict, but this one was different, with so many talking points. The headline absentees were Jamie, Scott and Luke Charteris – and I expected all three of those guys to be involved.
Jamie did a fantastic job captaining Wales in the summer while Scott has been around the squad for a long time now. Sadly for him, Jamie is paying the price for Warren’s change of approach and it does look like this could be the end of his international career. Whatever happens to him, Jamie has been an unbelievable servant to his country. He deserves all the praise he gets.
As for Scott and Luke, both players have arguably been struggling a bit for form this season. Scott especially hasn’t quite hit the heights he’d have liked with the Scarlets, but I’m sure this will be the kick up the backside he needs and he’ll certainly be back. In the future, being dropped now could work in his favour and the same applies to Luke at Bath.
As for those lucky enough to make the squad, I’d like to start with Owen Williams. I don’t want to put too much pressure on his young shoulders because it will take time for Wales and the players to be successful with any new approach.
There are still a couple of weeks to go before we face Australia at Principality Stadium, but I think Owen can be pencilled in to start that game at inside centre as he provides so many different options in the 12 jersey.
Warren has talked about starting with two playmakers against the Wallabies on November 11 and I’d be hugely surprised if Dan Biggar didn’t start at fly-half. As delighted as I am to see both Rhys Priestland and Rhys Patchell in the squad, Dan is the man in possession. The question for Warren is who plays outside him?
Patchell is an option there, so too is Owen Watkin, but it’s Williams I’d plump for. His distribution is excellent, he’s playing regularly for Gloucester at inside centre and he’s also more physical than you expect with his ball-carrying and work in the contact area. He can take the pressure off Dan, too, by stepping in at first receiver and providing another kicking option. With Dan and Owen in the same side, Wales will have passing options either side of the ruck.
Warren has spoken of following his successful approach with the Lions by implementing that same pattern of play with Wales. At the moment, Wales don’t have a partnership of the class of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell to pick from, but I think in time a midfield pairing of Dan and Owen Williams could come close.
Of course it’s early days, but I think a 10,12,13 axis of Dan, Owen and Jonathan Davies is one which would hugely excite Wales fans.
With Rhys Webb at scrum-half and Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and Steffan Evans in the back three, Warren has men who will have both the licence and more importantly the ability to thrill. All three of those guys are in form, too.
When you add in the replacement options of guys like Priestland, Patchell and Hadleigh Parkes – who will be available against South Africa – then you can see Warren has talent oozing from his fingertips. It must be a nice position to be in.
But Warren will know his team will be up against it this autumn. It will be hugely exciting to see a new-look Wales team in action, but we have to remember we’re coming up against three of the best outfits in the world who have already been together for a number of months.
Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are all in fine form at the end of their season and will be formidable opponents. Wales, as we know, are notoriously slow starters and have few training sessions together to implement their new approach before they meet the Wallabies.
It means there might be some struggles early on. That is understandable and I’d plead for the Welsh rugby public to be patient with what they see. You can’t turn from a crash-bang-wallop team into a free-running side overnight. It will take time and the fans need to be aware of that.
For all the options Warren has to pick from behind the scrum, we all know games of Test rugby are often won or lost up front. Without the likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens and Taulupe Faletau providing a forward platform, Wales won’t be able to play the sort of rugby they want.
With that in mind, I think the pack pretty much picks itself. I must admit I was shocked to see Sam Cross involved, I thought I was seeing things initially when I read his name.
Sam had a hell of a first game for the Ospreys against Saracens, but to be honest I’d be surprised if he got much game time in the weeks ahead. That said, the back row is an interesting area of debate. Faletau is a nailed on pick at No.8, but injuries to Sam Warburton and Ross Moriarty have left a bit of a gap.
Dan Lydiate is back involved, but I think Aaron Shingler and Justin Tipuric are decent bets to start on the flanks. Both guys are real handlers of the ball and if Wales are going to be truthful to their new approach, that’s not a bad combination to have.
Against the bigger sides I can see the argument that such a back-row trio is a bit lightweight. It’s a fair point, but ultimately this feels like a new dawn for Wales and I’m looking at the positives.