Wales has a history of serving up some interesting pre-Rugby World Cup friendly results which have tended to serve as an indicator of their subsequent tournament performances.
Perhaps the best example was the 2007 friendlies which involved a chastening 62-5 defeat at Twickenham which was followed up by a 7-34 reverse at the hands of the French in Cardiff. Few Welsh fans need reminding that defeat against Fiji in the RWC pool game saw them missing out on further progression in the competition.
Against this backdrop there was a sense of deja vu in the first friendly fixture between Wales and Ireland as a second string Ireland team raced to a 7-25 lead at half time before a spirited Welsh team provided some opposition in the second half.
What this game did confirm is that Wales don’t have great strength in depth once they get beyond the match squad and conversely Ireland are developing a pool of players with several credible options in a number of positions.
Why do we have this disparity? It’s difficult to answer but some of the mooted explanations are Ireland’s policy of retaining players within the Irish regional structure, the focus on developing players through the Wolfhounds (unlikely reason) and the success of the regional development academies.
This strength in depth will be a huge benefit during the RWC campaign where a large number of games in consecutive weeks will require more than fifteen players to play their part as Ireland seek to move towards the final stage of the competition.
Wales’ have arguably 20 players that are as good, or if not better, than Ireland’s but how these players are managed during the RWC will go some way towards dictating how far the Welsh can progress, given the large drop off in quality in a number of positions.
Wales RWC squad
There is the well know phrase that the only things certain in life are death, taxes and Gatland’s Welsh team selection. This consistency of selection over Gatland’s reign is a result of the issues with depth of quality in the Welsh game rather than being a cause of it.
For this reason we pretty much know the majority of the Welsh squad already. Given the squad is made up of 31 players and Gatland has already stated that he will name 17 forwards and 14 backs, with three hookers and three scrum-halves we can list those players that are dead certs to be heading to the RWC.
Outside backs: Halfpenny, L Williams (if fit, otherwise Amos), North, Cuthbert
Centres: Roberts, S Williams
Outside halves: Biggar, Priestland, Anscombe (if fit)
Scrum halves: Webb, G Davies, L Williams
Props: Lee (if fit), Francis, G Jenkins, P James
Hookers: Owens, Baldwin, Dacey
2nd rows: AW Jones, Charteris, B Davies
Back row: Warburton, Tipuric, Lydiate, Falateu
This means that about 26 of the squad is pretty much certain to be chosen which leaves us with 4/5 decisions to make.
3rd/4th centre or wing – assuming Liam Williams is fit we would expect Amos to also travel to cover full back and wing with George North providing an option in the centre. North has struggled with his defensive positioning in the games he has played at centre but this is a problem position for Wales and there are limited options.
Cory Allen has struggled to build on his strong performances of a year or so ago and could find his position as the third choice specialist centre taken by the young Dragons centre Tyler Morgan. Morgan is probably more in the Gatland mould of player so we think he will be chosen along with Amos to make up the 14 backs.
Prop – assuming Wales take 5 props the choice will be between an extra tight head or loose head. Paul James used to be used as the prop to cover both sides of the scrum but his appearances at tight head have been limited in recent times.
Jarvis has struggled as a scrummaging tight head but seems to be favoured by Gatland for his work around the pitch. On the loose head the Scarlet’s dynamic carrier Rob Evans provides a good option off the bench in games which have opened up.
Given the specialism of the tight head position the fifth prop will probably be Jarvis.
Back row – will Gatland opt for the abrasive but relatively untried Ross Moriarty or the versatile James King who could at a push fill in at second row. If they take King as a player who can fill in at second row this may allow Moriarty to also be selected, potentially at the expense of Ball.
By dropping Dan Baker from the trimmed down squad Gatland needs to find another number 8 who can take some of the burden off Falateu’s shoulders; the problem is there isn’t an obvious option in the squad.
Given the lack of a second choice number 8 and strong ball carriers in the back row we think Gatland will select both King and Moriarty at the expense of Jake Ball.
This means the following will miss out – but given the attrition rate in modern rugby they shouldn’t head to the beach just yet – Eli Walker, Cory Allen, Matthew Morgan, Rob Evans, Scott Andrews, Dominic Day, Jake Ball.