Wales’ Autumn campaign begins this weekend, the longest international window in the professional era outside of the Rugby World Cup, with six games in seven weeks.
Wayne Pivac’s squad will travel to Paris to take on France, before facing Scotland in the final game of the 2020 Six Nations. Then, after a week off, the Autumn Nations Cup will get underway away at Ireland before hosting Georgia and finishing at home against England. There will then be a Final round game depending on table position.
It’s an interesting time in the development of Pivac’s Wales after what was a very transitional first four rounds of the Six Nations back in February and March, with the coaching staff implementing changes in playing styles on both sides of the ball while dealing with injuries particularly in the back row and in midfield.
The squad he has picked for this Autumn is a real mix of experience and emerging talent with six debutants, after the withdrawal of Josh MacLeod, while there are nine players with over 50 caps to their name included.
With so much test rugby in such a short amount of time, as well as the removal of the need to boost World Rugby rankings after it was decided to draw World Cup pools based on rankings from the start of the year, there is a great chance to give the majority of the 38-man squad game time throughout the window.
Part of that will include not over-working some of the older guard, and as a result it’ll be intriguing to see how Pivac starts to switch the spine of the team from the old to the new, with half-an-eye on the 2023 World Cup.
For most of the last 10 years the likes of Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar, and Jon Davies have been mainstays of the Wales starting XV, but each is now heading into the twilight of their career. Although you wouldn’t necessarily write any off when it comes to heading to France in three years, the truth remains that we can’t rely on them being available and right for selection.
Therefore it’s worth keeping a keen eye on how some of the newer players in those positions fare over the next few weeks, with some looking ready to make a real impact, while others have question marks over whether they can fill the boots of those who came before.
At hooker, with Owens injured for the next two months, there is a three-way battle to wear the number two jersey. Elliot Dee was the front runner until he was left out of the original squad, while Ryan Elias seems the favourite having slowly overtaken his regional team-mate at the Scarlets. Sam Parry is the outsider, but might actually fit a Pivac game plan the best of the three.
When it comes to taking over from AWJ, it almost feels like blasphemy to even consider a replacement, but the great man can’t play forever. Even his partner in the second row is currently unknown, but in Cory Hill, Jake Ball, Will Rowlands and Seb Davies there is plenty of talent as well as a good variety of playing styles.
At openside flanker the obvious replacement for Tipuric is Josh Navidi, the 24-cap back rower who can operate at 6, 7 or 8 but is an openside by trade. James Davies gets another chance to impress after failing to catch the eye at international level so far, but perhaps the left-field option is Aaron Wainwright, who most closely matches Tipuric in terms of natural athleticism and football ability.
With Biggar there is a feeling that while age isn’t on his side, playing style isn’t either as he perhaps doesn’t have the natural playmaking instincts that Pivac is after. Callum Sheedy’s selection, as well as Rhys Patchell over a fully fit Jarrod Evans, is a nod to a desire to have an all-round fly-half who can play to the line and manage the game when required.
Finally, with Davies in the centre there is a further chance for Nick Tompkins to experience international rugby, while Johnny Williams is in line for his first exposure, but perhaps it’s the most important window for Owen Watkin. On the periphery of the starting XV for a number of years, the Ospreys man has a great chance now to step up and nail down the 12 jersey.
There is also an interesting change coming at winger, not a changing of the guard but for the first time since late 2010, George North will not enter an international window as an automatic pick on the wing.
Josh Adams is now the main man when it comes to the wide men, after a stunning 2019 that saw him finish top scorer at the World Cup, while Louis Rees-Zammit scored 13 tries in 19 games across the Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Cup for Gloucester in 2019/20.
With North having only played 20 minutes since February after getting sent off against the Dragons in August, he has a battle on his hands to retain a spot in the starting XV.
All-in-all, plenty to be excited about as the Wales squad starts to see a changing of the guard, with another step set to be taken on the journey towards getting the team playing Pivac’s way.