Wales have announced their squad ahead of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations. It contains three fly-halves with different playing styles. After a run of bad results, Wayne Pivac is under pressure to win. The fly-half Pivac picks changes the structure of the backline, in turn affecting the way Wales play. The man at ten could make all the difference. Here’s what the three have to offer.
Wales’ Slow and Steady Fly-Half
A household name, Dan Biggar has been in the Wales team since 2008. He’s rarely lost his place since 2014, playing 87 times and scoring 458 points. Previously questioned by the likes of Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell, he now faces two new challengers. He is a British and Irish Lion as of 2017 but wasn’t capped. Biggar pliess his trade for Northampton in a well-tested style that sits deep in the backline, giving himself space. He utilizes this space for his kicking game, which is his bread and butter. At 6’2, he’s an asset in challenging for up-and-unders. He made 94% of his kicks for Wales in 2020 and his spatial awareness for cross-field and territorial kicks is also excellent. His defence is solid, although he has come off on the better end of some questionable high-tackles – the 2019 World Cup Kerevi forearm incident, for one.
Before the 2019 Rugby World Cup, rugby legend JPR Williams said that Wales would never win the World Cup with Dan Biggar. He reasoned that he wasn’t enough of an attacking threat. The disadvantage of his steady style is that he rarely surprises. His deep stance limits his options and can make him predictable. He’s prone to kick or to ship the ball onto his inside centre for them to attack. Another knock-on effect of his style is that he lacks pace. He can play differently, but he’s good at the way he already plays. At 31, now is not the time to adapt. He also has his own dance, which counts for nothing except style.
Wales’ Fast and Loose Fly-Half
Jarrod Evans made his debut for Wales in the final minutes of a match against Scotland in 2018. His opportunities have been scarce since, having only played six times, scoring three points. He was omitted from the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup squad but has continued to shine in an uninspiring Cardiff Blues team and earned a recall. At 5’10 he’s larger than Sheedy but of the same mercurial mould. He attacks the defensive line at speed and possesses excellent footwork and hands. In the same interview, JPR Williams said Wales should’ve gone with Jarrod Evans at fly-half at the World Cup for his attacking spark. He’s currently top of the Pro14 for defenders beaten, second in try assists and third in points scored. He plays like he’s on a sugar rush.
His flair and energy can also be a curse. He’s apt to play too quickly for his own good and tops the Pro14 for possession lost. His inaccurate kicking out of hand and from the tee has cost him opportunities with Wales, as has his overall game management. Since coming into the fringes of Wales set up both Gatland and Pivac have sent him away to work on those aspects and now he looks to have more control over them. He’s fourth in the Pro14 for placekicking but his long kicking game is still an issue. It’s an issue that can likely only be fixed by bulking up to the detriment of his speed.
An added bonus is that the chemistry between him and Blues scrum-half Tomos Williams is well-established. Each wants to play fast and skillful rugby sometimes to the detriment of sense. If they lined up together for Wales the two together wouldn’t waste any time learning each other’s playing styles.
The In-Between Option
Callum Sheedy is the most recent fly-half to get his first cap for Wales. He played three times in November 2020 scoring 21 points. His performances as starting fly-half in a mixed team against Georgia and as a substitute in tighter games were tentative as would be expected. It’s a different story when he plays for the Bristol Bears. He was part of the side that won the Challenge Cup and reached a Gallagher Premiership semi-final in 2020. At 5’6, he’s quick-footed and pacey, with the ability for cute passes and offloads. But he also reads the game well, regularly setting up his wingers with cross-field kicks. As part of the talented Bears team, Sheedy shares the responsibility for the attack and is an unselfish fly-half. It’s a style made easier with the likes of Semi Radradra alongside him. He’s an all-rounder that’s slightly weighted towards attack. He made 73% of his kicks in 2020.
Bigger isn’t always better, but for one-on-one collisions, bigger usually wins. Sheedy’s size becomes a larger issue (no pun intended) at an international level where the players tend to be the biggest each country has to offer. Ireland, England, Scotland, France, New Zealand and South Africa’s preferred fly-halves in 2019/2020 were at least six foot tall. If a team uses a small fly-half they need to account for their perceived defensive weakness. That’s why England play George Ford with Owen Farrell beside him. He had an 85% tackle success rate for the Bears in 2020 but fly-halves are targeted more directly at international level. It’s questionable whether Wales’ fly-halves have the depth of quality centres to protect Sheedy if they have to.
Results Trump Style
What could be most important for Wales is that Pivac decides on one fly-half so a style can develop around them for the team. Former Wales and Lion’s scrum-half Mike Phillips recently complained that Wales’ erratic selection of Tomos Williams has been unfair. He thinks the nine and ten, who touch the ball the most, need consistency to play well. If consistency is the key, the two players that share the same attacking style would seem to fit best for the team, meaning Biggar is the anomaly. The Evans-Sheedy combination is exciting but may take too long for Pivac to see it come to fruition. With such pressure on Pivac to win, Biggar’s experience seems the safe and obvious choice for a short term turnaround. For Wales’ two leftover fly-halves, it’s really a question of who impresses the most with the limited opportunity they have.
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