Wales' next step towards the World Cup in Japan will be their forthcoming Autumn Internationals and TRU contributor Rhiannon Garth Jones has taken a look at what we might expect from Warren Gatland's side over the next month or so.
Wales surprised many observers (and fans) on their summer tour, winning three from three away from home and with an inexperienced squad to boot.
While both South Africa and Argentina, their opponents, have improved since then, many of those young players have continued to impress this season, including in Europe. The depth Warren Gatland now has to work with is better than it has been for a long time.
Gatland is a savvy operator who gets his squads peaking at just the right time. Both he and former captain Sam Warburton have made it clear that the autumn internationals will be treated as part of the build-up to this year’s Rugby World Cup.
So, while we might not see Gatland’s first choice XV this autumn, we will get to see the talent he’s considering, as he finesses partnerships and positions and tries to make his squad the finished article.
We asked @samwarburton_ how important this autumn is for Wales, his answer may surprise you!— BBC ScrumV (@BBCScrumV) October 7, 2018
Catch the full interview and much more later today on #ScrumV ??
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Wales kick off with a game on 3rd November against Scotland for the 'Doddie Weir Cup', newly created to support the former Scotland and Lions player who has been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. It’s very unusual for two of the home nations to play each other in the autumn internationals so this could be an intriguing game.
Next, they play an out-of-form Australia, on 10th November. Wales and Australia will be pool opponents yet again in the World Cup and Wales haven’t won a match between the two since 2008, racking up the tension for this match-up. Australia’s struggles in the Rugby Championship will give Welsh fans hope, however.
Games against Tonga and South Africa follow, on 17th and 24th November, respectively. Traditionally, Wales like to experiment against the Tier 2 nations in the autumn, but they might field a more cohesive team this time round. South Africa should prove the toughest competition in this series and might see the half-back pairing that fans can expect to start the Six Nations.
Wales have had admirable depth in the back-row for some time now – even the retirement of Warburton hasn’t made a major dent. Taulupe Faletau, James Davies, and Aaron Shingler are all injured but Wales still have Ross Moriarty, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, and Justin Tipuric to choose from, with plenty more hoping to get a look-in.
All four can cover more than one position, with Tipuric starting on the blindside last year for Wales, so a number of combinations are possible. Jenkins’ leadership ability may give him an advantage in selection.
Fly-half is a position that will always create debate in Wales, where Barry John’s magic is still the standard that players are held to. Dan Biggar has had a lock on the jersey for years but he faces serious competition now, especially as Wales work on a more expansive style.
Gareth Anscombe has been tearing it up for Cardiff Blues from both fly-half and full-back and looks certain to be in the squad. His Pro14 rival Rhys Patchell has also been playing well at 10 and is essential to the Scarlets’ free-flowing game. Sam Davies has also rediscovered his form for Ospreys and Jarrod Evans is another who has caught the eye this season and last.
Anscombe and Patchell are the strongest Wales-based candidates but don’t rule out Gatland giving one of the others a chance as a bolter.
In the back three, Wales can call on three Lions in Leigh Halfpenny, George North, and Liam Williams. Such is the form of Anscombe, however, he might get the 15 spot and push one of them out.
Hallam Amos, Steff Evans, and Josh Adams should all see game time, while Owen Lane has started the season well. Former sevens player Luke Morgan has had a storming beginning to the campaign with Ospreys and would be a fascinating dark horse selection.
At the start of October, Gatland summoned 60+ players to let them know they were in contention for a squad place come the World Cup. Many of those will be nailed on so Gatland will probably use the autumn to give the fringe players a chance.
Such is Wales’ strength in depth across the back row that Ollie Griffiths has only one international cap. He has struggled with injuries over the past two years as well, but he has had an excellent start to the season, playing alongside the more established Moriarty.
Rhys Webb’s departure to Toulon means the scrum-half position is wide open. Gareth Davies is the experienced candidate, but he has struggled to control games in the past. Tomos Williams was excellent over the summer and has carried that form into the season. His partnership with Anscombe means he has a good chance of starting at least one game.
One area where Wales look desperately thin is centre. If one of Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes or Scott Williams gets injured, Owen Watkin looks the next man in line. At 6ft 3” and 103kg, at first glance he’s another one of Gatland’s gainline-smashers. But he has soft hands, great footballing instincts, and looks like the future of the Welsh midfield. He needs a bit of experience and will probably get it in the autumn.
In an attempt to encourage their players to stay in Wales, the WRU introduced a rule that any player without 60 caps wouldn’t be considered for selection if they played outside the country. The aforementioned Webb is the biggest casualty of the policy, with only 31 caps, although Alex Cuthbert is also ruled out, with only 47. Those who signed their contracts before the policy was introduced are exempt.
However, Gatland has also made it clear than any eligible player based outside of Wales will struggle when selection decisions are made because they won’t be available for all the training sessions.
Established players like Dan Biggar, Liam Williams, and Taulupe Faletau will probably be fine although none will be available for the opening game against Scotland as it falls outside the international window.
Moreover, with the depth Gatland is establishing, he has the room to warn them that he has players at home who can step in. Less established players, like Josh Adams, Tomas Francis, Owen Williams, and Thomas Young, will likely need to be in the form of their careers if they are to get a call-up.
Wales have been quietly putting themselves in the best position they’ve been in for a very long time. Competition for places is hotting up. While we may not see the final product this autumn, that’s all part of Gatland’s plan.
What we likely will see is a lot of exciting talent been given the opportunity to prove their case – and possibly doing it very well.