Analysis: The battle for 15 is on

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The Guinness Six Nations ended on the weekend and a glorious two months for Welsh rugby supporters came to a finale with the lifting of the Championship and Triple Crown trophies, as well as a Grand Slam tucked in the back pocket.

Wales woke up with a hangover on Sunday after a huge performance to secure top spot against Ireland, and while Warren Gatland may well have joined them in celebrating his last Six Nations game as our coach, when thoughts turn to the short-term future he is likely to find some tough decisions on the horizon.

Finding the right balance and maintaining the quality within the squad with just 31-men is going to be difficult enough, never mind selecting a starting XV for the big games, and that is where the real debate will lie.

After the Six Nations there will continue to be discussions over a number of positions, particularly who partners Alun Wyn Jones in the second row, what is the make-up of the back row, of course who starts at 10 is in there, and then there’s full-back.

Now going back five months and the 15 jersey was seemingly Leigh Halfpenny’s to lose, after a consistently strong showing during the 2018 Six Nations for Wales, and with the Scarlets as they made the Pro14 Final and Heineken Cup semi-final.

However, the concussion picked up after being shoulder charged by Samu Kerevi in the second Autumn International has seen him spend a lengthy period on the touchline, and left the Welsh full-back job available for applicants.

The successful candidate was one Liam Williams, who’s CV boasted playing full-back for the British and Irish Lions during a series draw in New Zealand, but despite that was still not seen as the natural second choice full-back in all quarters. Over the last two months he has certainly changed those tunes.

Throughout the Six Nations Liam Williams has been a rock under the high ball, in some especially testing circumstances as well, with the poor weather that met us in Paris in round one, and the aerial bombardment that England sent after kicking both Ireland France off the field.

Particularly the first clip, where he plucks a huge up and under out of the sky inside his own 22, he shows the ability and mental fortitude to clear up the danger a high ball presents, but the other clips demonstrate an awareness that the job is not finished once possession is secured.

In the first clip against England, Williams turns in the air to come down facing his own line, thus making it harder to be held up and so that he is in a position whereby the retreating Josh Navidi can support him on the floor in securing possession, while in the second clip he lands and gets to ground quickly so as to avoid being taken into touch.

Further to his work under the high ball, Liam Williams has excellent defensive positioning to cover kicks through, in another skill that full-backs should possess, and that the Saracens man can do to a high level.

Two attacks that are starting to look dangerous, two attacks that are immediately ended by the full-back’s reading of the game and ability to get himself into the right position, but this is something we take for granted when Leigh Halfpenny is wearing 15.

Instead, what sets Williams apart is what he can do after he gets his hands on the ball.

Coming across to cover two kicks that each present their challenges, either due to some odd bounces or because it has been pushed deep into the corner, Liam Williams is in a tough spot.

However, his speed to get across as quickly as possible, the composure to stay calm under pressure, and the footwork to beat the first chasing player on each occasion, means he ends up somewhat on the front foot making it much easier for his team-mates to get back and help secure possession.

That footwork and pace makes him a serious threat when counter attacking, either in traffic like in the first clip, where he breaks a tackle and returns possession with interest, or in the second clip where he has 10 metres to work in and can pick a gap to accelerate through.

Across the four games he spent the majority of the 80 minutes at full-back, he carried for an average of 53 metres per game, making four line breaks and beating 12 defenders altogether. Considering the weather conditions in Paris and the little possession Wales had against Scotland and England, those are strong stats.

This is arguably where Liam Williams has the advantage over Leigh Halfpenny, who is not known as the biggest attacking threat in world rugby, but is one of the best defensive full-backs currently in the game.

Unfortunately, largely due to the strength of the Shaun Edwards coached defensive line of Wales, Williams’ tackling skills were not put to the test, with only seven ball carriers coming his way across the four games he was at full-back, and perhaps it is on this basis that Halfpenny may get the nod when it comes to the World Cup.

For now though, Liam sits in the driving seat, having been named in many Six Nations teams of the tournament and been officially nominated as a player of the tournament.

You don’t just turn up with the confidence to start plucking balls out of the sky over your head, or scooping them up one-handed when running back towards your line, that is something that Liam Williams has developed over the last few games.

Leigh Halfpenny has a big task on his hands in the last four weeks of the domestic season to prove to Warren Gatland that he has his mojo back after the concussion, although hopefully that starts after the Scarlets take on Cardiff Blues this Friday night!

Either way, Wales are in a privileged possession heading towards Japan with two world class full-backs who have both starred at 15 for the British and Irish Lions. The squad is developing very nicely indeed.

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