The most startling aspect of the Welsh RWC squad announcement was the inclusion of 5 second rows, particularly when we consider he only selected 3 for the 2011 World Cup squad. Add in to the mix the fact that James King can also play second row and we can see Gatland has given himself a number of options, probably at the expense of a third hooker.
Alun-Wyn Jones injury worse than announced?
The obvious explanation for choosing 5 second rows is that Alun-Wyn Jones’ injury is worse than has been announced and the Welsh management have concerns over his fitness for a number of the pool games. Gatland made the guarded comment that, ” Alun Wyn should only be out for a couple of weeks but you never know with medial [ligament] stuff”. This caveat does hint at the possibility that Jones’ will be out of the tournament for some time.
Even if we discard Jones’ involvement for a number of games Gatland still has 4 second rows to choose from plus King if pushed. Taking 5 front row players (3 tight heads) makes sense but by taking an extra second row the Welsh squad looks exposed at hooker.
Gatland’s 2011 squad comprised 3 hookers ( Bennett, Burns and Owens) but this time he has only gone with two. This is very unusual. In the 2011 RWC only one of the major teams (Argentina) arrived in New Zealand with 2 rather than 3 hookers, while no major teams took 2 hookers to the 2007 World Cup.
Having two options will mean that between Owens and Baldwin they will have to play 4 games in 20 days – a pretty tough schedule. The lack of a third hooker is made more baffling by the fact that Gatland fairly consistently changes all his front row players during a game and usually only one of the second rows. This will certainly mean the two hookers being well used while a number of second rows will be kicking their heals in the stands.
Who is the second choice number 8?
As soon as Dan Baker was trimmed from the training squad during the initial cull the issue of who would be back up to Falateu arose. Gatland seems to see the Dragons’ number 8 as a player who benefits from lots of intensive rugby to get his game up to speed, but even he is going to struggle to play 4 games in 20 days let alone the final friendly and any subsequent knock out matches.
So who is his backup? Well, since Ryan Jones disappeared off the Welsh scene there hasn’t been an obvious replacement for Falateu but his incredible run in the Welsh team coupled with his seeming inability to get injured has meant that a reserve number 8 hasn’t been developed.
Assuming Gatland chooses his standard team which includes a Warburton, Falateu and Lydiate back row with Tipuric on the bench it isn’t obvious which of Warburton or Lydiate would fill in at number 8. Choosing a first choice number 8 to start games against Uruguay and perhaps Fiji is going to be an even harder decision to make given the lack of an alternative.
What happens next?
Wales has one more friendly game left before they take on Uruguay on the 20th September and then probably the defining game of the pool against England on the 26th. Will Gatland now keep his first team in cotton wool until the England game and play the second string against Italy and Uruguay or will he start his first team in both games and take off his key players around half time to keep them fresh but up to speed to play a crunch World Cup game?
It wouldn’t be a surprise if he takes the former option and hides his key players until the England fixture with perhaps 20 minute cameos in the next two games. Players like Halfpenny, Roberts, Falateu and Alun-Wyn Jones are crucial to this team so don’t expect to see them too much before the clash at Twickenham which will probably define Gatland’s recent tenure as coach.