Many questions have been asked following Wales’ heavy defeat to Australia on Saturday as an all-round disappointing, some may say embarrassing, performance consigned Warren Gatland’s side, temporarily marshalled by Rob Howley, to a 12th successive defeat against the Wallabies.
The standard and quantity of the coaching, attitude of the players, the appropriateness of National Dual Contracts in preparing players for international rugby and the general Welsh Rugby Union organisation have all been blamed, some quite rightly, for last weekend’s debacle. However, for me there’s another issue and I’ve been going on about it for a while.
Team selection has been wrong for a few years under Gatland in my opinion, as he selects players that suit his ‘Warrenball’ style of direct rugby and now religiously sticks to that group of players. However, as results and performances generally have taken a turn for the worse in the last few months there has been increasing pressure to start selecting the squad on form.
My main gripe these last few weeks with not selecting on form is that Wales are leaving out one of the best wingers in the Pro12 at a time when scoring tries is a massive problem. Of course it comes from my biased Cardiff point of view, but I would have Tom James in my Wales squad as one of the first names on the team sheet.
The statistics largely speak for themselves. Since his return to the Arms Park from Exeter at the beginning of last year he’s scored 16 tries in 26 appearances across all competitions. That’s only very minimally over a try every 120 minutes of rugby with few key scores along the way, including a match winner away at Newport last season and a crucial brace in Munster a few weeks ago.
When you compare those statistics to the competition for Welsh wingers playing for their clubs in the same period he is well ahead. James’ Cardiff teammate Alex Cuthbert has six tries in 15 games (try every 2.5 games), Northampton’s George North has 8 in 25 (every 3 games), Scarlets’ Liam Williams 3 in 11 (every 3.5+ games) and Toulon’s Leigh Halfpenny has just 2 in 5 thanks to injuries (2.5 games).
Only Dragons’ Hallam Amos really compares to Tom James’ form with 12 tries in 19 games and he has been selected for the squad, while Ospreys’ Keelan Giles joins him despite only really bursting onto the scene a few weeks ago and being only 18.
So why has Tom James been overlooked for the Autumn Internationals after hardly being used during the Six Nations? Well it certainly can’t be down to form. There will be some who hark back to a time early in Warren Gatland’s reign when he and James did not exactly see eye-to-eye and believe there is still some bad blood between the pair.
On the 2008 tour of South Africa the winger described a substitute appearance very late into the second test as ‘pointless’ and had a dig at Mark Jones who was keeping him out of the side, before he left the Wales camp during the 2010 Six Nations in response to 19 year old Tom Prydie being selected ahead of him.
However, as was acknowledged by Gatland, James and national team captain Sam Warburton upon the winger’s return to the Wales setup for the last Six Nations, he has matured a lot since those early days in his career and past discretions have been forgiven and forgotten.
With that not in the equation then it leaves just one possible reason for James’ exclusion from the squad; his fitness. The former Merthyr youngster has for some while now been suffering from an ongoing foot problem. It cost him a place in the Wales World Cup squad and forces him to manage his training schedule.
Unfortunately this does not fit in with the plans of Gatland, or Howley for that matter, who’s high intensity, physical game plan requires a certain level of training and the players to be able to maintain that top level of fitness constantly during international periods. With Tom James’ specialist training plan, this cannot be possible.
This should not have any impact on squad choice, the best players need to be picked at all times, but unfortunately in the World of Welsh rugby it does. I am reminded of Craig Bellamy’s continued selection by the Wales national football team in the latter years of his career, despite only training once a week, and I do wonder why the same cannot be applied here. Especially considering Bellamy’s excellent performances in that period.
Anyway, while Wales continue to ignore Tom James’ excellent performances at the Arms Park it only serves to benefit Cardiff Blues and I do hope that the top scorer of the Celtic League age can add to his tally away at Connacht in two weeks, as those in the Principality Stadium watching Wales take on South Africa wonder what might have been.