Welsh training squad announced: what should we expect from it?

Rhys Carre
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Gatland has announced his 42-man Welsh training squad for the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan. There might not be many surprises but a close look suggests plenty of takeaways for fans – of both Wales and rival teams.

Welsh training squad announced: what should we expect from it?

Wales have just won a Grand Slam in a hotly contested year and are currently second in the world. So we should probably expect the Welsh training squad for the RWC to be fairly impressive. And it is. After all, this side is on a 14-game winning streak. It’s a squad packed with youth and talent but with plenty of experience to anchor it.

By the time it’s narrowed down to a 31-man squad (on which more later) it will probably have an average age of around 26 and average 39 caps between them. That’s similar in age to the previous two tournaments, where they have been one of the youngest squads both times. However, there is more experience throughout the squad (the caps’ average for the last two squads were 29 and 31 respectively).

Seven of these players are veterans of the past two World Cup tournaments. Ten more made the last one, with Jonathan Davies and Leigh Halfpenny both present in 2011 but injured last time round. Nine players went on the last Lions’ tour and six featured in the Lions’ victory over New Zealand. This isn’t quite the level of experience that New Zealand put together in the 2015 World Cup. However, it does tally with the 2011 and 2007 winning sides.

No surprises?

In terms of omissions, there aren’t really any surprises here. Thomas Young and Ellis Jenkins have both been highlighted as not fit for selection but possible inclusions later. Rhys Webb, meanwhile, remains unavailable for selection. Otherwise, this is much the same squad that Gatland initially selected for the Six Nations. Only 31 players participated in that tournament as the coach balanced RWC-prep with pulling off a third Grand Slam but the wider squad still trained.

There are two potential “bolters” in this squad, although we don’t know yet if they will make the final selection. This is, after all, a very competitive squad and Gatland has suggested they are part of the “succession plan”.

Rhys Carre:

If you’ve heard of the young loosehead it’s probably because he has just signed for Saracens. This has raised questions about his future eligibility for Wales given their 60-cap rule for existing, foreign-based players (especially as he is also English-qualified). Cardiff Blues fans know him better as the possible heir to Gethin Jenkins. For such a young prop, he certainly looks to have a bright future and his recent performances have been impressive. He’ll have a lot of work to do to dislodge Rob Evans, Nicky Smith, and Wyn Jones, however, and there is an air of canniness from Gatland with this selection, claiming the horse before it bolts the stable.

Owen Lane:

This selection is unlikely to be a surprise to anyone who has followed Welsh rugby recently. The 21-yr old wing’s size, pace, and handling have been impressing those at Blues and those who have been on the end of his try scoring. He has played sevens internationally for Wales already as well as representing the U20s. If there is going to be a bolter in Wales, it’s Lane.

The final 31-man Welsh squad

A “best side” is now rarer than the Scottish unicorn: injuries are an unavoidable part of the modern game and squad depth is everything. Wales and Ireland were both caught out horribly by injuries in the last world cup and it is noticeable that both have made strengthening their wider squads a priority since.

However, we can’t predict the future, including which players won’t make it. A “best possible squad”, however, is interesting and informative. Based on the 31 players who contributed to the Welsh Grand Slam, with the most prominent returnees from injury, this is a plausible selection from the current Welsh training squad.

Possible 31-man squad:

Forwards –

Rob Evans, Nicky Smith, Wyn Jones, Samson Lee, Tomas Francis, Dillon Lewis;
Ken Owens, Ryan Elias, Elliott Dee;
Jake Ball, Adam Beard, Cory Hill, Alun-Wyn Jones;
Taulupe Faletau, Ellis Jenkins*, Ross Moriarty, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric (with Aaron Wainwright as first reserve);

Backs –

Aled Davies, Gareth Davies, Tomos Williams;
Gareth Anscombe, Dan Biggar, Rhys Patchell;
Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Owen Watkin;
Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, George North, Josh Adams (with Hallam Amos as first reserve)

*if fit

There are some close calls here (for example, Rhys Webb continues to miss out, Scott Williams’ lack of game time sees Owen Watkin preferred, Dillon Lewis edges out Leon Brown because he played more during the Six Nations). In some cases, talent might edge out experience in the final equation. However, it feels like a reasonable selection, particularly as Gatland has hinted he will go for an 18/13 split this time.

The ability of Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell to cover 15 means the heavier weighting of the forwards doesn’t leave the backs as short. Likewise, the versatility of the back-row options (who have all played at least two positions across the back-row internationally) allows for more front-rowers.

This is, of course, all conjecture. But it would be a strong squad. When you go onto think about the players who have missed out from the Welsh training squad and the experience they could bring (particularly the likes of Bradley Davies, Scott Williams, and Hallam Amos, who have all been to at least one world cup), it becomes obvious Wales are serious contenders.

Leading from the front

Last time round it wasn’t a problem of leadership for Wales, with the referee-whisperer Sam Warburton as captain, veteran Gethin Jenkins and the inspirational Alun-Wyn Jones in the tight five, warrior Dan Biggar at 10, and defensive captain and Gatland stalwart Jamie Roberts at 12.

However, there are only so many injuries a side can take and Wales were down to third or even fourth choice in some positions, with a bench that didn’t contain game-changers. This time around it looks as though the depth is there. Is the leadership? After all, Jenkins and Warburton have retired, Biggar is no longer first choice, and Roberts hasn’t played for Wales in years. Alun-Wyn Jones now looks to be the one player in this Welsh training squad that they can’t afford to lose. His all-round game, the way he always leads from the front, his communication with referees, and his 125 caps show he is a true talisman.

If the unthinkable happened and Jones couldn’t play, Wales would have Ken Owens, the Scarlets captain, as well as Jonathan Davies, Taulupe Faletau, and Justin Tipuric. Those players have long been part of the leadership group, have experience as captain, and have 273 caps between them. Added to that is the unflappable Leigh Halfpenny (80 caps) at the back and Hadleigh Parkes, who always seems to make the right decisions. And then there are Cory Hill and Ellis Jenkins, who have both been earmarked for leadership from their younger days and already been in charge.

Moving forward as a squad

If there was a criticism of Wales after their recent Grand Slam success, it was their attacking prowess. Their defence and discipline were superb and their fitness was clearly exceptional but they scored fewer tries than anyone except Italy.

It’s worth highlighting that the Lions and Ireland have proved recently that New Zealand, still the team to beat, could be defeated without scoring a lot of tries. England came very close to doing so last autumn. This season, Wales have beaten every side except New Zealand in the current top eight of the world rankings and done so based on defence.

However, the ability to cut teams apart in attack will be likely still be valuable and it does seem to be an area Wales lack in. On the other hand, Wales did prove in the summer and autumn that, in the right conditions, they can cut loose and play, showing some stuff against Argentina and Tonga that the Barbarians would be proud of. Can they do it in Japan?

Gatland and some of the players have already spoken about the skills camps they are looking forward to participating in as part of the wider Welsh training squad. It seems safe to assume, then, that they plan to add an attacking string to their already well-stocked bow.

Wales aren’t the favourites for the Rugby World Cup 2019 and they aren’t the only strong side going into the tournament. But, with a squad like this and one of the best coaches around, they should be a match for anyone and could well be in the mix towards the end of the tournament.

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