Versatility the aspect to watch as pre-World Cup tests get underway

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Wales get their pre-World Cup campaign underway this weekend as Warren Gatland’s men prepare to take on England at Twickenham in the first of four test matches.

There will be plenty to keep an eye on, including the fitness of potentially key players such as Josh Navidi, Aaron Shingler and Leigh Halfpenny, the form of returning internationals Jake Ball and Scott Williams, and the ability of youngsters Rhys Carre, Leon Brown and Owen Lane.

One of the sub-plots will not be so much about what happens on-the-field though, but what Warren Gatland gives away when it comes to his team selections, and how they link in with his thinking when it comes to forming the final 31-man squad.

This is because to simply argue the fact that ‘player x’ is in good form so he should be included in the squad isn’t enough, you have to argue that ‘player x’ is in good form and here’s what he can bring to a 31-man squad.

The truth is that the squad size is very small considering what is being asked of them over the first half of the tournament. Without wishing to jinx anything, Wales will have to play five games in 27 days if they make it to the quarter-finals, including two in five days at the end of the pool stage.

As a comparison, Wales played their five Six Nations games over a period of 43 days, with the minimum break being seven days between games. For that, Warren Gatland named a squad of 39 players.

This is why simply being in good form isn’t enough to make the squad as, unless a player plays in a specialist position such as in the front row, or is quite clearly the best player in one position, then a level of versatility will be required.

The squad make-up will be key, with many questions such as whether Gatland will take a full complement of nine front-rowers, if he’ll lean more towards bolstering the second or back rows, how many players at each half-back position will make the plane, and what sort of balance we can expect in the centres and back three.

Looking at previous squads Gatland has taken to World Cups provides a little insight, particularly the 2011 squad, as while he went light on the front row in 2015 with just two hookers and five props allowing him to take five locks and six back rowers, that tournament saw us based in Wales with replacements just a car ride away.

With the 2011 edition taking place in New Zealand, Gatland opted for eight front rowers, even in the days where there were only two needed on the bench, taking only three locks, four back rowers, and Ryan Jones who could cover both.

There is a consistency across the squads though, with two fly-halves named on each occasion, boosted by James Hook (2011) and Matthew Morgan (2015) who could step in and cover if required.

While how Gatland plans to format his squad will be key, it could well be shaped over the next three games, and this is why his squad selections should be closely watched.

Looking at the training squad there are plenty of players we know to already be versatile; Josh Navidi, Aaron Wainwright and Ross Moriarty regularly wear different numbers in the back row, Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell are comfortable at full-back, George North has stepped in at outside centre, and Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny can switch around the back three.

However, there are plenty more who have shown versatility at domestic level, but have not been asked to play outside of their primary position often, or at all, on the international stage.

In the forwards there is the somewhat left-field option of Ken Owens slotting in at number eight as he did on occasion for Scarlets last season, and while it’s difficult to see him being asked to do that at a World Cup, others switching between lock and the back row is more likely.

Cory Hill started four games over the busy festive period for Dragons on the blindside flank and impressed with some committed displays while showing his on athleticism. Having slipped behind Adam Beard in the second row ranks for Wales, a versatile role could be on the cards.

Meanwhile someone who can switch the other way is Aaron Shingler, with the flanker having the size and set piece prowess to slot in at lock. However, he hasn’t started in the second row since May 2012, and the added complication is that he hasn’t played at all since May 2018.

Into the backs and there are some similarly left-field options with many on the Arms Park terraces feeling that Tomos Williams could have done a job on the wing when he was emerging through the ranks, while Owen Watkin is another unlikely candidate to possibly find himself covering out wide.

More likely though is Hadleigh Parkes being asked to cover inside, stepping in a position from 12 to 10, as he did twice for Scarlets last season and on a number of occasions during the final quarter of a game as the West Wales side won the then Pro12 in 2016. He would then be the 2019 equivalent of Hook or Morgan.

Outside him there are three players in the back three ranks who could be asked to show off their club level versatility on the international stage.

Hallam Amos has featured at both wing and full-back for Wales in his career, but moved into the centre, reportedly at the behest of international management, for a short time with the Dragons last season, and may repeat that in the next few weeks with a view to providing outside centre cover.

Josh Adams broke into the Worcester team as a full-back back in September 2017 and there is no harm in seeing him return to the 15 jersey for Wales, as that added versatility will only benefit the team.

Finally, Jonah Holmes can also operate on both the wing and at full-back, and will likely get plenty of minutes over the next few weeks as someone who hasn’t played an awful lot of international rugby to date. Interestingly he has also played at scrum-half in his professional career, which could allow Gatland to take just two recognised nines, although this is another left-field call.

All-in-all there is plenty to look at for the Wales head coach as we head into three test matches before the final 31-man squad that will travel to Japan is announced.

Versatility is a really key aspect in a 31-man World Cup squad, and while there is plenty to call on already, having that extra flexibility could be the difference between pushing into the final week of the tournament and flying home before it’s already begun.

Interesting team selections lay ahead!

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