No ordinary series
The Autumn Internationals have a slightly unfamiliar feel for Wales this year. There’s a genuine belief that the usual Groundhog Day scenario of a plucky defeat to The All Blacks, a frustrating defeat to Australia, an unconvincing win against South Africa (in recent years at least) and an abysmal encounter against a tier two nation might for once be avoided.
The first reason for this is of course that Wales aren’t playing New Zealand and instead start their campaign against Scotland, playing for The Doddie Weir Cup. Leaving aside the obvious emotion of this event, and the wonderful gesture by the two unions to raise money for the great man’s cause, it is an odd game to prepare for, especially falling as it does outside of the test window (traditionally Wales’s fourth international has come at the end of the series).
The second is that Wales had a brilliant summer. A battling but unappealing victory against South Africa in Washington DC was followed by a much more impressive 2-0 series win in Argentina, with a number of young players announcing themselves on the world stage. Australia also look particularly vulnerable this year (although we have heard that before) and, despite their recent improvement, Wales’s recent record against South Africa will give them encouragement. Suddenly, four wins doesn’t look impossible.
Add to this the fact that we are in the last 12 months of a World Cup cycle, as well as being Warren Gatland’s final Autumn International series as coach, and you start to see why the selection process may have been a little out of the ordinary. And so it proved, with two debutants and two notable omissions providing the main talking points.
Gatland has never been afraid of a bolter, and many anticipated it would be Luke Morgan, who has made such an impressive start to his Ospreys career after switching from sevens in the summer. They were half right, with Morgan getting the call. But no one predicted the selection of Leicester’s Jonah Holmes.
Even experienced Welsh journalists were left asking ‘who?’ when his name appeared on the squad list, and in a comical moment he was referred to as Josh in a press conference this week. But the Welsh exiles programme may well have uncovered a gem. Despite being on the radar since 2016, it was Holmes’s recent Man of the Match performance against Northampton that finally persuaded Gatland to pick up the phone.
He’s big, physical and very quick. In other words, Gatland’s Platonic Form of a winger. It’ll certainly be interesting to see if he gets a chance outside of the test with Tonga. With the number of injuries increasing at an alarming rate in recent times, you’d be a brave man to bet against it.
Speaking of injuries, Wales have quietly picked up a significant injury list in the past few weeks. Long-term absentees Scott Williams, James Davies, Hallam Amos, Aaron Shingler and Seb Davies were joined just last week by Taulupe Faletau, Owen Lane and Josh Navidi. Navidi’s omission particularly turned some heads, with many seemingly not realising it was due to a knock he picked up against Lyon.
This leaves Wales especially light in the back row, where they are used to boasting an embarrassment of riches. However, they are still able to field a very strong trio of Tipuric, Moriarty and Ellis Jenkins for the first test. If these three stay fit, Wales’s depleted back row won’t worry them too much. But it’s what happens if they don’t that’s making people nervous.
The once all-conquering Dan Lydiate and highly-promising Aaron Wainwright wait in the wings. Both very good players, but it’s very hard to argue that their form is anywhere near that of Thomas Young and Ollie Griffiths.
We’ve almost become used to Young’s continued exile, but given that he’s been one of the best back rows in the English Premiership for two years now, it doesn’t get any less perplexing. Griffiths is also in the form of his life, and there are few in Wales who would have been displeased with his inclusion.
The old hands
Among the talk of new faces and absent friends, there has been little said about the rest of the Welsh squad. However, it’s likely these four tests will largely be won and lost by this silent majority.
Wales have the luxury of picking from a full contingent of front-five forwards, and it’s here in the engine room they look the strongest. There is not a nation in the world that would baulk at Ken Owens, Elliot Dee and Ryan Elias at hooker. Established props Rob Evans and Samson Lee complete a fearsome and experienced front row, with young guns Wyn Jones, Dillon Lewis and Leon Brown joining Thomas Francis to provide more than able backup.
The second row is just as strong. The indominable Alun Wyn Jones, the returning Jake Ball and Cory Hill, who proved so many wrong last year, have a great mix of brain and brawn – along with heart and skill to burn. It’s hard to see how anyone could get the better of this front five, and it’s an area where Wales will be looking to dominate their opponents this autumn.
At scrum half, Gareth Davies looks certain to keep his place, although the battle between Aled Davies and Tomos Williams to establish themselves as second choice promises to be intriguing. Dan Biggar’s place at ten is less certain, with the dual threats of Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe starting to look irresistible. The latter’s dazzling form this season will certainly have caught Gatland’s eye, and if he impresses against Scotland, expect to see him retain his place against Australia the following week.
The centre partnership of Jon Davies and Hadleigh Parkes, denied to Scarlets and Wales fans for a whole year through the former’s injury, will once again bring grunt, if no great artistry, to Wales’s midfield. But one thing you can be sure of is they won’t let anyone down.
In the back three, it will be great to see the resurgent George North take to the Principality Stadium’s pitch once more. Leigh Halfpenny is certain to bring his steady presence to full-back, especially with Liam Williams absent for the first game. What happens to the other fringe players, including the strangely forgotten Steff Evans, remains to be seen. But it is sure to be interesting.
The focus on the few has allowed Wales’s big guns to go under the radar in the build up to this series, and maybe that’s just how they like it. If Wales can gel against Scotland, I expect them to put together a good set of results, maybe even (whisper it) a clean sweep.
Whatever happens, if Wales are to have a chance in Japan next year, Gatland must use this series intelligently to learn what he can about his squad. And if Wales can finally break their hoodoo against Australia, especially with New Zealand showing themselves to be less than invincible, it may just be the breakthrough they need to truly believe in victory in the 2019 World Cup.