Positions up for grabs as full Wales training squad gets together

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The full Wales 42-man training squad that Warren Gatland has selected ahead of September’s Rugby World Cup has now met up ahead of two months of gruelling preparation.

They begin training at The Vale Resort before heading off for a fortnight in Fiesch, part of the Swiss Alps, where the squad visited before the 2015 World Cup. Upon returning home they will face a double header against England.

Following the second game against England the squad will then head for the Gloria Sports Arena in Turkey, before a double header against Ireland during the which the final 31-man squad travelling to Japan will be named.

Between now and then there will be plenty of ups and downs, injuries and form-related issues, but as the squad meet up as one for the first time, I’ve had a look at where there are places in that final 31-man squad to be won.

Front Row

One of the difficulties of predicting the squad is working out how many players Warren Gatland will opt for in each position. For example, does he risk going with just two players in a front row slot, as he did with hooker in 2015, or does he take a full quota of nine front row players.

For loosehead and hooker either way there is little debate over selection at this point, with Rob Evans and Nicky Smith comfortably ahead of Wyn Jones in the race for the number one jersey, and Ken Owens and Elliott Dee settled as first and second choice in front of Ryan Elias in the middle of the front row.

There is an interesting battle hotting up at tighthead though, where Tomas Francis and Samson Lee have both been first choice at different points of the last two years, while Dillon Lewis has featured in seven of the last nine tests. With Leon Brown fit and ready to challenge, there could a headache for Gatland when it comes to the three jersey.

Dillon Lewis Wales
Dillon Lewis and Tomas Francis are two of the tighthead contenders

Second Row

Another position where numbers are not yet known, as Gatland could opt to take four locks, or only three and then utilise someone like Aaron Shingler as a makeshift second row should the need arise.

When it comes to the top three Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Beard and Cory Hill are looking settled as the matchday squad options having featured heavily across the Autumn Internationals and Six Nations.

However, Jake Ball is fit and firing for the first time in over a year and could force his way into one of those spots, while Bradley Davies will use his experience to put his hand up should Gatland opt for four out-and-out second rows.

Seb Davies and Josh Turnbull have both been left out of the training squad, but could still find themselves in the final squad should versatility be required between the second row and back row.

Back Row

This is where the real debates are going to take place over the next few months with, for my money, only Taulupe Faletau, if fit, and Justin Tipuric assured of a spot on the plane to Japan.

Josh Navidi and Ross Moriarty have both been consistent performers over the last year or so, but Aaron Shingler and Aaron Wainwright will put their hands up as out-and-out blindside flankers, with the former also a high quality lineout jumper.

James Davies’ work over the ball puts him into contention, but should Ellis Jenkins and Thomas Young be fit having been left out of the training squad through injury, they will be serious contenders in that respect as well.

There will likely only be room for a maximum of six back row forwards in the 31-man squad, meaning Gatland will have to select from the nine aforementioned players, as well as Seb Davies and Josh Turnbull as referred to in the second row section.

Justin Tipuric Tomas Francis Ireland
Justin Tipuric is a certainty to be on the plane

Half-back

Like the front row, whether Gatland chooses to risk taking two or three scrum-halves is the key here.

If he opts for three then it’s a simple choice of Tomos Williams, Gareth Davies and Aled Davies, but choosing which of them to leave at home should he only take two will be a tough one, as all three have strengths and weaknesses to their game.

At fly-half Gareth Anscombe and Dan Biggar are assured of a spot on the plane, with the only question being whether Rhys Patchell has recovered his form well enough from a tough season with the Scarlets to offer a third option as well as full-back cover.

If he has then the three will go with minimal complaint, however if Patchell is left at home it’s not just a straight jump to Jarrod Evans being selected. Gatland may opt to go with another back three or centre option, and utilise Hadleigh Parkes as emergency fly-half cover.

Centre

Another position where numbers comes into the equation, as Gatland has to choose whether to take three or four players at out-and-out midfield options.

Jonathan Davies is assured of his place on the plane, with Hadleigh Parkes and the returning Scott Williams the favourites to join him should there only be three options, with the likes of Hallam Amos and George North able to cover 13 if selected in the back three.

However, Owen Watkin has been in fine form for the Ospreys this season and would be very difficult to leave out. If there are only three centres he will fancy a go at displacing one of Parkes or Williams.

Jon Davies Scotland
Jon Davies is set to light up the World Cup

Back Three

For my money there are four players cemented in the final 31-man squad here, with Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny, Josh Adams and George North all no-brainers when it comes to selection.

This leaves Steff Evans, Hallam Amos, Owen Lane and Jonah Holmes fighting it out for what will likely be a maximum of two more seats on the plane, with each having a fighting a chance of being selected.

Evans has the experience of being involved for the last 18 months, while Amos has more caps but injury had regularly kept him out of action. Holmes is the reliable Gatland-esque player, while Lane is the exciting unknown quantity.

Plenty of interesting battles to keep an eye on over the next few months, as well as a lot of pressure on Gatland to find the right balance in the final 31-man squad. Something to keep us from getting bored over the summer at least!

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