There’s been times over the last six months or so where I have felt like a stuck record, but I strongly believe that Wayne Pivac needs to hand Callum Sheedy the Welsh number 10 jersey.
This isn’t a criticism of Dan Biggar at all, it’s certainly not some sort of Rhys Priestland/Alex Cuthbert-esque witch hunt. I still think Biggar is a superb player, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better game manager, high ball enthusiast and tooth-and-nail competitor than the Northampton man. He’s an ideal bench option, as he was during the 2019 Grand Slam.
Like in 2019 though, I think we need a starting fly-half who can create an attacking spark as well as having the ability to manage proceedings through his kicking game when required, and for me Sheedy is that man. Over particularly the last two years with Bristol and during the last six months with Wales he has proven to be an excellent all-round fly-half.
There are still some who say he’s only good with his club side because of the players he has around him, or that he doesn’t offer enough at international level to start, but his 75 minutes off the bench over the last two games have provided a number of examples of his intelligence, creativity and confidence, and it starts from just how flat to the gain line he is.
By standing so flat to the gain line, Sheedy draws Ellis Genge out of the defensive line in the first phase and puts Rhodri Jones into a situation where he and Alun Wyn Jones are in a two-on-two carrying situation up against Ben Curry and Billy Vunipola, rather than a two-on-three.
Wales get some forward momentum and, crucially, can generate quick ball, with Genge having to retreat into the defensive line rather than set the edge of the breakdown and act as the guard defender setting the tone for those outside him.
With Sheedy flat again at first receiver in the next phase it draws Ben Youngs into a spot blitz that he misjudges and Willis Halaholo can put Josh Adams into the space left by the English scrum-half. Just two phases of taking the ball close to the gain line as possible opens up an attacking opportunity, as does his decision making on when to insert himself at first receiver.
In the first phase above, most 10s would leave that to the scrum-half and the carrying pod of forwards just to bring play in from the touchline and let them go through a starter phase. Get across the gain line if possible, but certainly generate quick ball for the fly-half to play off the following phase.
Instead Sheedy inserts himself at first receiver and allows the carrying pod to shift in-field by an extra five metres. This in-turn attracts the attention of the Scottish midfield defence who start to bite in. With Leon Brown pulling the ball back to Owen Watkin, that midfield defence then have to turn back out again, and the Welshman can attack a weak inside shoulder to free his arms and get an offload away.
Sheedy is then back at first receiver the following phase and Wales have what is effectively a 6-on-3 overlap on the right-hand side. With Duhan van der Merwe stepping out of the defensive line it’s a nice option to kick for Louis Rees-Zammit to chase and very nearly leads to a try. Not long after, there was no ‘very nearly’.
By stepping in at first receiver on a starter play, Sheedy also gives the forwards a much better chance of generating forward momentum and securing quick ball. If the pass goes straight from the scrum-half to the ball carrier, the defender has about 10 metres of air time to line up the ball carrier. With Sheedy in possession they have to delay their hit and Wales can win the collision.
Back at first receiver he causes the outside Scotland defence to bite in this time and achieves what the attack should ultimately set out to do, get danger men like Willis Halaholo and Louis Rees-Zammit on the ball in space. Result? A try.
What Sheedy stepping in at first receiver also does in this circumstance is offer a potential mis-match. With the opposition expecting to go up against a carrying pod they put their tight five forwards around the fringes, and with the fly-half playing flat to the line he can take advantage of a gap and back himself to make a break.
As well as stepping in at first receiver, Sheedy is also happy to let drop into a deeper role behind the carrying pod and allow a forward to step in at first receiver. By taking a yard he can scan the defensive set up and identify space out wide, which is increased by utilising the forwards.
It exposes the outside defenders who are either forced to bite inside or drift and leave some weak shoulders exposed. Up against the 14-men of Scotland, Sheedy was able to use this to excellent effect in pulling and pushing the Scottish defence around the field.
In the end the mixture of playing flat to the line and calling the screen pass at the right time leads to a try against Scotland, before the red card was shown, with Sheedy holding the outside centre in blue and creating the gap for Louis Rees-Zammit to run into, rather than allowing him to drift as he could do if the fly-half was a yard too deep.
I had originally planned to put this piece out ahead of Wales’ team announcement for this weekend’s clash with Italy, however the early announcement of the 23 put paid to that, and disappointingly Dan Biggar will still be the man wearing the number 10 jersey.
I understand that the current setup is working, with Biggar starting and Sheedy coming off the bench, but at some point Wales will come unstuck by leaving Biggar on the field too long, or perhaps more accurately, leaving Sheedy on the bench too long, and we’ll run out of time to fire up some attacking inspiration.
It would be great to see Wayne Pivac starting to name a side that is set up to go and attack the game from the first minute, as well as giving Sheedy the time to grow further into international rugby ahead of a brilliantly intriguing battle for the number 10 jersey with Gareth Anscombe, Rhys Patchell, Jarrod Evans and Sam Costelow going into the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
I live in hope!