It’s same again for Wales as Warren Gatland trots out a highly predictable squad for the Six Nations, and sadly once more there is no place for Adam Jones. The legendary Lions tighthead had been expected to be overlooked in favour of his young protege Samson Lee, but his absence nevertheless comes as a bit of a shock considering his international standing and the entirely ordinary abilities of tighthead reserves Aaron Jarvis and Scott Andrews.
While the announcement of his test retirement is understandable, one wonders if Jones would get the call should Lee be injured before the World Cup, and if Jones would answer? There’s little point speculating for now, or adding to the overflow of recognition pouring in from across the globe. Those who have watched him over the past decade need no reminder of his qualities.
That long-time scrum mate Gethin Jenkins remains is a testament to his own fortitude. The loosehead centurion looked doomed to suffer a similar ending a short time ago, but has responded to Gatland’s challenge with renewed vigour. Who his top challenger is now is no longer a simple question. The referees seem to have caught on to the questionable scrum tactics of Paul James, while youngster Rob Evans has been in eye-catching form for Scarlets and offers far more in the loose. Evans and injured Ospreys wunderkind Nicky Smith look set to battle it out for the no1 jersey for the next decade.
Injuries to Ken Owens and Emyr Phillips meant a new hooker was needed, and it’s Kristian Dacey who gets the call, despite largely playing the role of understudy to Matthew Rees at Cardiff Blues. There was quite a bit of speculation that Elliott Dee, the highly promising u20 graduate making a name for himself with the Dragons, would be the one to get the invitation. Dacey’s advantages in size and experience appear to have influenced Gatland’s decision. It’s not a bad call given that Dacey is probably better prepared to take part if required, but most would argue that Dee, along with Ospreys duo Sam Parry and Scott Otten, have greater upsides both in terms of youth and ability.
There weren’t any other questions needing to be answered up front, though it’s fair to say that Josh Navidi is the unluckiest absentee based on his recent showings in Cardiff colours. The dreadlocked back rower appears to have added a couple kilos of muscle to his frame this year and has locked surprisingly powerful at no8 rather than his usual openside spot. With Dan Baker out injured there was an opportunity to bring in another player but Gatland has instead opted for just five loose forwards, with no obvious backup to Toby Faletau. A lack of genuine international size has almost certainly hurt Navidi’s chances, but the failure to reward arguably the in-form forward in Welsh rugby with at least a spot on the training roster seems a bit counter-productive. At worst his versatility and dynamism could prove useful as an impact sub.
Scarlets halfback Gareth Davies has returned after recovering from injury. Though he is unlikely to unseat incumbent Rhys Webb, it will be interesting to see if he can oust the rapidly declining Mike Phillips from the match day squad. What he lacks in experience he more than makes up for with his speed off the mark, an attribute that has seen him rack up an impressive try tally over the past couple seasons and forces defenders to pay attention. Of the two, he’s far more likely to make a positive difference as a substitute than the languid Phillips.
At outside half there is a new face in Gareth Anscombe, but his selection feels little more than formality seeing as Gatland himself was involved in the negotation to lure him from New Zealand. For a young man he is a polished player with excellent skills and big game temperament. His selection comes at the expense of James Hook, somewhat expected given his spotty record in a Welsh jersey and the fact that he now resides in England, and more palpably Rhys Patchell, who might be feeling a bit disenchanted at Cardiff now that he has been pushed out of a spot at both club and country by a bloke who wasn’t even on the ground just three months ago.
Anscombe’s familiarity with fullback might make him a tasty option on the bench if Gatland feels that Rhys Priestland’s doesn’t demand a spot, presuming of course that Dan Biggar is the preferred choice to start at no10. Priestland’s decision to sign for Bath for next season isn’t likely to factor much in the decision unless it’s perceived as razor thin, and certainly in the early goings his experience will get the nod. Expect to see Anscombe in the red jersey at some point, however, with a first cap against Italy a near certainty if he hasn’t appeared already.
Tyler Morgan’s inclusion shouldn’t come as any great surprise either, particularly with his recent dual contract announcement. Already an impressive physical speciman with good skills, the teenager is really only in the squad to practice with the big boys. He’ll be doing his playing with the u20s, though a spot on the bench alongside Anscombe in Rome might be a good bet. Dragons teammate Hallam Amos, already capped more than a year ago against Tonga, should get opportunities if only to remind both George North and Alex Cuthbert that they aren’t quite untouchable, however fictitious that statement may be.
There have been numerous calls for Liam Williams to get a start after a very good autumn series, but Gatland has his team picked out. He’ll give North, Cuthbert, and Leigh Halfpenny the first crack to prove themselves, with the specter of Williams hanging just outside the door, or maybe behind their game day jerseys. As good as the tempestuous Scarlet is on the counterattack, Halfpenny’s consistency and the sheer mass of the wing duo yield better odds for victory, and that pragmatism is the central tenet of the Gatland-ball textbook.
Wales won’t be reinventing the wheel, that much is certain, and only minor tinkering will be taking place between now and September. The no4 jersey is still to be resolved and maybe a couple reserve roles, otherwise the die is cast. What we have seen is that they are a difficult proposition, as a drawn out South Africa found out in November, but not world beaters. For all the gargantuan demi-gods out wide the forwards lack punch, and the absence of a Plan B when steamrolling isn’t working is a considerable limitation begging to be exposed by a cogent defensive strategy – cue Joe Schmidt.
Beating a crippled England side at the Millenium Stadium should be considered only a mildly laudable achievement, in fact it should be expected. Beyond that, however, the crystal ball is clouded. Wales aren’t great on the road and their only other home game is against tournament favorites Ireland. The Scots look revitalised and a trip to Paris is always a shot in the dark. Look for Gatland’s Army to start and end well, but experience some hard slogging through the middle, with a top half finish on the table but a title looking just out of reach.
02/06 – 20:05 GMT – vs England – Millenium Stadium, Cardiff
02/15 – 15:00 GMT – vs Scotland – Murrayfield, Edinburgh
02/28 – 17:00 GMT – vs France – Stade de France, Paris
03/15 – 14:30 GMT – vs Ireland – Millenium Stadium, Cardiff
03/21 – 12:30 GMT – vs Italy – Stadio Olimpico, Rome