Gatland today will announce the team he thinks has the best chance of defeating New Zealand, his birthplace. Below is the team I would like to see named, not only with Saturday’s performance in mind, but also considering the development of the squad as a whole.
I’ll keep this as short as I can, even though I have a lot to say about each of my selections!
15. Leigh Halfpenny. With our beloved Sanjay out injured, Halfpenny offers stability and class at fullback that is needed against a team that has plenty of it in stock. His long range boot helps too!
14. Hallam Amos. As Gatland has alluded to in the past, Amos isn’t the quickest winger around; but what he lacks in pace he makes up for in heart (and a substantial amount of muscle mass). You can’t argue with two tries in two games!
13. Scott Williams. Losing Jonathan Davies is an enormous blow for Wales. Not only did he cause endless problem for the All Blacks over the summer, his defensive work is , in my opinion, the best in the world. He makes world class centres look average in attack. However, Williams offers a whole new dimension in the midfield; with oodles of pace and plenty of power, if Scotty gets behind you it’s game over.
12. Owen Williams. Despite my affinity to developing youngsters in the autumn internationals, I had a serious inner debate as to whether or not Jamie Roberts would be ideal for this kind of match. But brute force and a solid defence isn’t enough to beat the All Blacks. We need pace and creativity, and Williams has plenty of both!
11. Steff Evans. Without doubt Wales’ most potent attacking threat. Evans has dancing, weaving feet that almost guarantees to beat the first defender but showed against Australia that he’s not afraid to drop his shoulder and use his strength to power over too! That winger shirt belongs to him now.
10. Rhys Priestland. Biggar has been a faithful servant to Wales for a considerable time, but when Priestland’s confidence is up he raises the quality of his entire team. However, it was his defensive commitment that impressed me last week; Biggar no doubt throws his weight into the tackle but Priestland was tackling with textbook form to halt a potential attack in its tracks. He’s also recalibrated his radar and his kicking is back on point!
9. Gareth Davies. Davies and Webb have very similar playing styles; quick off the mark and will punish any lapses around the ruck. I prefer Davies to Webb as I feel the Scarlet man has a bit more pace and has a knack for scoring opportunistic tries… and Wales will need to pounce on every opportunity on Saturday!
1. Rob Evans. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, Evans is the epitome of a modern day, loosehead prop. Although he’s strong in the set piece, it’s in the loose that the Haverfordwest man shines; explosive carrying, bullish at the breakdown but also has the passing skills of a halfback!
2. Ken Owens. A natural leader, Owens wears his heart on his sleeve and gives nothing less than 100% in every single game. His experience will be needed in the front row against such a powerful pack.
3. Tomas Francis. I had toyed with the idea of starting Leon Brown, but purely because I’d prefer to see the energetic prop come on if and when the game breaks up (and with Samson Lee still a major doubt), Francis gets the nod.
4. Jake Ball. The bearded giant has developed into a ferocious enforcer; carrying the ball well and no slouch in defence either, it’s hard to believe that Ball is still only 26. Pushing 6’ 7” and weighing the best part of 20 stone, Wales will need Ball to be at his imposing best this weekend.
5. Alun Wyn Jones. With 9 consecutive British and Irish Lions tests under his belt, there’s no one better to lead Wales into this kind of encounter in my opinion. Brings a hard edge and a wealth of streetwise experience; Alun Wyn is well known to the Kiwis.
6. Dan Lydiate. This is a bit of a controversial decision considering Shinglers form and athleticism; but watching Lydiate hurl himself at the heft Georgians and knocking each one back was a joy. His physicality and additional weight could help stop any forward momentum the All Black pack tries to build.
7. Josh Navidi. The openside is growing in confidence and his enthusiasm around the park is infectious. Capable of playing across the back row, the All Blacks will find it difficult to read Navidi after playing against Warburton so often!
8. Taulupe Faletau. The big number eight is no stranger to the New Zealanders, and Faletau has acquainted himself with the All Blacks’ try line on more than one occasion. A true professional, Faletau will be his cool and collective self once more for this clash.
Wyn Jones, Elliot Dee and Leon Brown offer a superbly strong replacement front row; all of which will be bouncing with the exuberance of youth! If Wales are still in the game when these three come on, and the crowd are in good voice, it could give them that surge of adrenaline to shock the All Blacks at scrum time.
I feel Seb Davies was wasted in the back row against Georgia; what makes Davies such a useful talent is that he’s a second row with the capabilities of a back row. Bringing Davies into the second row and Aaron Shingler in the back row instead of Lydiate, in the latter stages of the game turns the dynamic of the pack on its head: from power and direct aggression, suddenly there’s pace and athleticism (it’s the kind of pack the All Blacks themselves like to field). Shingler and Davies are both lineout experts too; which we’ll need to be ultra-competitive at if the game is tight late in the game, especially after the calamity at the lineout against Georgia.
Aled Davies showed real promise against the Lelos, and I think the fair-haired Scarlet would raise his game even higher against Hansen’s men. Providing service as reliable and regular as a metronome, Davies’ pin-point accurate passing would be vital in retaining possession.
As fly half replacement, I’ll admit I’ve gone for a controversial, if not slightly bias decision here, but I’ll explain so bear with me… Rhys Patchell. Now, New Zealand have played against Biggar on numerous occasions and there’s hours and hours of footage of the Ospreys man on international duty to analyse; not so much of Patchell. The Cardiff born fly half offers a completely new challenge; he pulled the strings and helped guide his region to a Pro12 title last season and the Scarlet has real pace. You want a flyhalf that can chase down Barrett at full pace, or can finish off a line break himself? Patchell is your man. Not to mention the fact he seems to have a mini-howitzer installed in his right boot. Seriously, this lad comfortably (and I mean, comfortably) slotted a penalty from 62 metres out. This decision is the last thing the All Blacks would expect; and they do hate unpredictability!
Finally, the cautious person in me told me to play it safe and put Jamie Roberts on the bench. Even Sonny Bill Williams would find it difficult to push his way past good old Dr. Bob, but what use is that to Wales? It’s highly unlikely the behemoth centre will be on international duty in the 2019 Rugby World Cup… now Owen Watkin on the other hand… that’s a kid with talent and a future! Let him have a crack at the world’s best and he and Wales will be all the better for it in two years’ time.