A central conundrum for Wayne Pivac

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Wayne Pivac has a serious problem to contend with as he prepares to name his first Six Nations squad as Wales head coach, with a severe lack of available international midfielders available for selection.

A season-ending knee injury suffered by Jon Davies at the World Cup, as well as a shorter-term knee injury picked up by Owen Watkin, will leave only Hadleigh Parkes available of the centres that travelled to Japan a few months ago, and even the Scarlets player is not in the best of form at the moment.

The injuries have exposed a complete lack of depth to Wales’ centre ranks, particularly outside centre. Despite what former Welsh international Mark Ring rambled on about on Twitter over the weekend, it is not simply the case that a player can switch from inside to outside centre in the modern game, while 13 continues to be the hardest position to get right defensively.

Possible contenders to fill the jersey have not been able to as Cory Allen has also suffered a season ending injury, while the likes of Kieran Williams, Corey Baldwin, Harri Millard and Garyn Smith have failed to get enough game time under their belts to push to be involved.

In the end Pivac is going to be left with the following choices; playing an inside centre out of position, playing a regional standard outside centre at international level and hope they can deal with the step up, or play a back three player out of position.

Starting with that first option and there are three players who fall into that category for me; Scott Williams, Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler and Ben Thomas, with all three having upsides and downsides.

Williams is a highly experienced operator, with 58 Wales caps to his name and countless appearances for Scarlets before his move to Ospreys, but injuries have made the last 18 months a nightmare for the 29-year-old, with a persistent back problem a particular issue.

Scott Williams Ireland

Watching him play over the festive period there are still question marks over his fitness and how the injuries have impacted on the pace he had earlier in his career, which could threaten how suited to outside centre at international level he still is.

Thomas-Wheeler is at the other end of the scale in terms of experience having only graduated the Wales U20 setup last summer and made just 21 appearances across the Pro14 and Europe. A no doubt talented player he has spent much of this season at outside centre, not playing poorly by any means but not setting the world alight as he continues to look like a 12 long-term.

Thomas also has a lack of experience having only broken into the Cardiff Blues squad for the first time back in November, but is in the best form of the three having earned rave reviews for his performances at inside centre, a position he has made his own at the Arms Park.

Picking him at outside centre for Wales would be a huge risk though as the 21-year-old has come through the system as a fly-half, and while he has the attributes to be a Henry Slade-esque 13, it would be the first time he has played at the position in any rugby, let alone at the top level.

The second category of player is the solid regional level outside centre, with Steff Hughes, Tyler Morgan and Adam Warren the names appearing here.

Hughes has been touted as the favourite to fill the role of outside centre in the squad, having performed solidly in the 13 jersey for Scarlets so far this season, but a struggle against Rey Lee-Lo at the Arms Park last Friday raises questions about whether he is suited to rising to the international scene.

Morgan was seen as a star player of the future when he made his debut at just 19 back in 2015, but health issues off the field and a lack of consistent performances off it have led to him dropping down the pecking order to the point where he is not even assured of starting in the Dragons XV as things stand.

At Rodney Parade it is Warren who has kept him out of the 13 jersey at times, but while the 28-year-old is a reliable performer at regional level, there is a big question mark over whether he has the ability to step up in a Wales squad.

Tyler Morgan Dragons

Then the final category has a number of players in it, with Owen Lane, Josh Adams, Hallam Amos, George North and Johnny McNicholl all suggested as back three players who could slot in to the outside centre role.

Of those Adams and McNicholl would appear to be the least likely, even though Adams moved to 13 at the end of the Barbarians game last month, as the players with the least experience of regularly playing at outside centre.

North has the most experience at international level having slotted inside on a number of occasions over the years, but he has never looked natural at outside centre, and his lack of form at the World Cup and lack of fitness since then actually put a question mark over whether he gets selected in the squad at all, let alone played out of position.

Amos and Lane are the players with the most experience, with the former having filled in at times for Dragons and the latter having come through the Academy system as a centre where he played for Wales U20, but neither are ideal options heading into a Six Nations it is fair to say.

My personal conclusion is that the squad should contain at least one person from each category, with Hadleigh Parkes, Scott Williams, Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler and Steff Hughes forming the centre contingent in the squad while each of the back three players mentioned are included in that contingent.

The two-week training bloc pre-Six Nations can then be used to evaluate each player at the outside centre position, with my current personal preference being one of the back three players, preferably Owen Lane, starting against Italy.

With the greatest of respect to them you would imagine Wales will have too much for the Italians at home anyway. If Lane is a success then he stays in the team to go to Ireland, if he struggles then turn to the experience of Scott Williams or the solidity of Steff Hughes before Owen Watkin hopefully returns for France in round three.

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