I’m very much in the camp of giving Wales little to no chance of being competitive during the upcoming 2021 Guinness Six Nations.
Having largely wasted his first year in charge of the national team I don’t think Wayne Pivac properly knows what his best starting XV is, I don’t think he fully understands how his coaching ethos and favoured style of play can prosper at international level, and I don’t think he has shown enough backbone in his pursuit of figuring out either of those.
We have been left with a Wales team that is made up of a weird mash-up of Gatland era and new era players, and is playing a weird mash-up of Gatland tactics and Pivac tactics, that simply do not complement each other.
At a time when England are looking as strong as they’ve ever been under Eddie Jones, France are getting better year-on-year under Fabien Galthie as they build to the 2023 Rugby World Cup, Ireland are evolving steadily under Andy Farrell as they looked in-house for a successor to Joe Schmidt, and even Scotland continue to improve under Gregor Townsend, Wales under Wayne Pivac are, at best, stalling.
A major part of that as far as I can see is a lack of real quality options in midfield. Throughout the previous 10 years we’ve seen some really solid centre partnerships. Jamie Roberts and Tom Shanklin, Jamie Roberts and Jon Davies, Hadleigh Parkes and Jon Davies. All have been central to what’s been good about the Welsh team in attack and defence.
In the here and now though Wales are struggling big time to even put together a decent list of options, let alone nail down a pairing that can lead us to success.
At inside centre the situation is tentatively encouraging, but far from ideal. Johnny Williams has potential as a strong carrier who could develop his distribution, Owen Watkin has a solid all-round game but maybe lacks the edge to hold on to the 12 jersey, Nick Tompkins is arguably the most suited Parkes replacement but can be erratic in attack, while Willis Halaholo has the x factor but is totally untested at international level as well as fitness concerns.
With the likes of Ben Thomas, Aneurin Owen and Kieran Williams on the way through the system, there is plenty of promise that the inside centre spot even if there’s no top quality options to wear 12 right at this moment, but it’s outside centre which is still the concern.
In the modern game inside and outside centre are increasingly different positions. There are fewer and fewer players who can switch back and forth, and in many respects the 12 spot is closer to fly-half and the 13 spot is closer to winger in terms of transferrable skills nowadays.
When you look at our stable of 12s you’d say that Watkin lacks the out-and-out pace to operate a bit wider, Williams and Halaholo are slightly struggling in the athleticism department and Tompkins has developed a worryingly long show reel of defensive mis-reads from outside centre over the last few months.
Kieran Williams looks to me to be a player who could be an excellent international 13 long-term, but with little or no game time there so far in his career he’s off the table for now, and then we come to Jon Davies, one time the best defensive 13 in the world, and arguably the best 13 in the world full stop around 2017.
However, battling through a knee injury for a second time in his career during the 2019 Rugby World Cup and after a year out following the surgery that was required to correct that and the subsequent rehab has appeared to have cost the 32-year-old the pace and general mobility that underpinned his game over the last decade.
During the Autumn Internationals there were signs that he was struggling to get back to that real top level of performance, and after two weeks being outplayed by Rey Lee-Lo against Cardiff Blues there are serious questions marks for me over whether he’s the man to be slotting in at 13 against Ireland on the weekend.
The answer in my book is the one we ended the Autumn with, and that’s playing George North at outside centre.
Now I’d rather it be Josh Adams if I’m totally honest. While I think wearing 13 would restrict his ability to pop up off his wing in midfield as and when he pleases, I think that’s balanced out by him being able to get his hands on the ball a lot more at outside centre than on the wing, and as I’ve looked at previously, his defence is more than capable of standing up to a shift in-field.
However, Adams is still largely untested at 13 and as such North is the man for this weekend. He’s in form, playing with confidence, has the defensive knowhow and the pace to take advantage of a forward pack that will hopefully include the carrying power of Ken Owens, Jake Ball, Josh Navidi and Taulupe Faletau playing fast and moving the Irish side around the park.
Over the next few years we will see the likes of Corey Baldwin and Mason Grady begin to make strides towards the international level, but for now it’s time to utilise the squad as best we can and pick on what allows us to play to our strengths, rather than pick on reputation. With North at 13 you can pick Louis Rees-Zammit on the wing and get your three best attackers on the field.
I don’t necessarily expect this to happen, and I hope to be proved wrong by the team that is selected, but if we simply try to go toe-to-toe with Ireland then we could be in for a long 80 minutes.