Headaches for Warren Gatland ahead of South Africa test

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Wales could make it four from four this Autumn if they overcome South Africa on Saturday, but before that Warren Gatland has some decisions to make about the team he wants to face the Springboks.

After roughly the same players beat Scotland and Australia won in the first two weeks of November, the changes were rung ahead of the now annual tier two test on Saturday, with only Adam Beard surviving in the starting XV against Tonga.

A number of players put their hands up for selection in the 74-24 win at the Principality Stadium, and as soon as the final whistle blew the debates were raging in the media and online.

Wales team Tonga
Wales cruised past Tonga in the second half on Saturday

Some people were calling for a change up front after Rob Evans impressed off the bench against Tonga, but the likelihood is that Nicky Smith will retain the number one jersey after two very solid performances against Scotland and Australia.

It’s the other side of the front row where more debate can be had, after Dillon Lewis went well against the Scots before Tomas Francis got the nod to start against the Wallabies.

Francis was capable of holding up an end of the scrum on his start, but Lewis offers so much more around the field with his carrying and ability over the ball, as well as showing his scrummaging quality last summer, and he should be the favourite to start this weekend in my book.

Behind them the vacancy that persists alongside Alun Wyn Jones is up for grabs again after Cory Hill had an underwhelming game against Scotland, before Adam Beard failed to properly get a grip on the jersey in the last two weeks.

Jake Ball, on the other hand, marked his return to the Wales team for the first time since last November with a superb performance that saw him make 11 carries, a brilliant line break that led to a try and 11 tackles. It will be a big surprise to see anything other than Ball’s name alongside Jones’ in the second row next weekend.

Cory Hill Italy
Cory Hill has been the man partnering Alun Wyn Jones in recent months

Across the back row and into the half-backs there is likely to be a similar story of good performances against Tonga but little change for the Springboks.

Aaron Wainwright and Seb Davies both played well on Saturday but were never likely to replace Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric for the final game of the Autumn, and while I’d like to see Ellis Jenkins and Tipuric teaming up as dual opensides at some point before the World Cup, the likelihood is that Dan Lydiate will retain his spot on the blindside.

Tomos Williams also had a good game against Tonga, and has impressed off the bench against Scotland and Australia, but hasn’t quite done enough to displace Gareth Davies at this point although his future is extremely bright.

Fly-half is likely to be the major debating point during the week, but while Dan Biggar controlled the first 60 minutes well against Tonga, it would be very harsh to leave Gareth Anscombe out of the starting XV after leading Wales to a first win over Australia in 10 years.

In the next 10 months we are likely to see Anscombe battling it out with Rhys Patchell for the starting spot, with Dan Biggar the ultra reliable fall back option if required due to poor form, or in tough games away at the likes of Ireland or England.

Gareth Anscombe Australia
Anscombe retains the 10 jersey for me

For me the main debate should be who starts outside Anscombe after Owen Watkin was superb against Tonga. He combines physicality with good footwork on the carry, has a nifty change of pace and his ability to rip the ball from the opposition in contact is a very handy attribute indeed.

The incumbent inside centre is Hadleigh Parkes, and although we’ve seen some good link-up play between him and Anscombe, Parkes hasn’t been firing on all cylinders as he was last season. Starting Watkin against South Africa might be a timely reminder that nobody’s spot in the XV is safe.

Finally, there’s a decision to be made in the back three which may be further complicated by injuries, as Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, George North and Josh Adams battle it out for the starting spots.

If he’s fit, then Leigh Halfpenny has to start at full-back, quite simply. He’s arguably the best defensive full-back in the world, has a superb kicking game and is improving in his counter attacking ability.

Leigh Halfpenny Scotland
Leigh Halfpenny starts at full-back if fit

Slotting in alongside him for me would then be Liam Williams and George North. This is no slight on Josh Adams who is a great option to have off the bench, but Williams and North are two wingers of your highest quality and have plenty of experience between them. This is what you need in the big games.

However, if Halfpenny is not deemed fit then I would like to see Gatland take the opportunity to try Anscombe and Patchell as a fly-half and full-back combo.

I think it would suit Wales’ expanding attacking game plan down to the ground, get two high quality playmakers on the field who are both more than comfortable at full-back, and fit in with the developing of squad depth that this Autumn has partially been about.

With only 31-men in the squad for next year’s World Cup, knowing that Patchell and/or Anscombe can slot in at 15 in the big games will aid the flexibility of the squad.

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