In the build up to every Six Nations there are countless conversations, debates and usually arguments about which side should run out in the red of Wales on the opening day of the tournament.
This year is no different but there is a noticeable concentration on two areas of the field; back row and centre, which largely comes from a number of players nailing down their spots in the starting XV over the last 18 months-to-two years, but also from the sheer number of players out injured. Owens, Jones, Navidi, Tipuric, Faletau, North and Halfpenny to name a few.
As a result not included in the conversation has been scrum-half where, for the first time going into an international window, Tomos Williams is the undisputed holder of the number nine jersey despite Richard Hibbard’s somewhat bizarre selection of Gareth Davies in his Wales team on the Scrum V preview show.
Williams has flirted with that number one scrum-half spot ever since making a serious impression on debut in the tour of the Americas back in the summer of 2018 where he grabbed a try in the win over South Africa. He subsequently served as deputy to Davies through to the end of the 2019 World Cup, but failed to make the jump to starter during the 2020 Six Nations and was then injured for the Autumn.
Another injury followed during the 2021 tournament but finally during the recent Autumn series starts against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia saw the 27-year-old put in back-to-back high quality performances that we have come to expect at the Arms Park by now.
Having always had the x factor moments of scything snipes from the bases of breakdowns or set pieces, one handed offloads in the wide channel on turnover ball or acrobatic touch savers from opposition penalties, Williams has now added the kicking game and crucially the ability to dictate the tempo of games to his repertoire of attributes making him close to the all-round finished product.
That tempo governance will be particularly key during this Six Nations as Wales head coach Wayne Pivac continues to confuse with his team selections versus how he wants his side to attack.
A constant source of frustration for many watching his Welsh charges have been the ease with which we have been turned over in attack as ball carriers are often isolated, with criticism levelled at work done around clearing out attacking breakdowns as well as the shape adopted by Pivac and Jones which sees smaller carrying pods of forwards distributed widely across the field.
However, to my eyes the root cause of the issues comes from fly-half where Dan Biggar, for all his kicking, high ball, tackling and general game management skills, does not have a natural ability to stand flat and bring ball carriers on to the ball at speed in the same way that the likes of Callum Sheedy, Gareth Anscombe and Jarrod Evans do.
Similarly, he does not have the line breaking ability that the aforementioned three playmakers possess, so as a result we see time-and-time again that ball carriers are slow coming on the ball and immediately met behind the gain line by a fast blitzing modern day defence, with subsequent breakdown support having to come backwards to go through the gate and secure possession which is now either slow or lost.
It’s all part of the confusing Pivac team selections that see an attacking and fast-paced choice of Josh Adams at centre with Ellis Jenkins and Taine Basham teaming up at centre, but a more conservative and physical option of Biggar at fly-half, meanwhile the creative Sheedy sits on the bench with the defensively strong Owen Watkin and the physicality of Ross Moriarty.
As a result if Wales are looking to attack against Ireland on Saturday, and indeed throughout the Six Nations if we assume that Biggar as captain will start more than he won’t, then a lot of that will need to come from Tomos Williams at scrum-half.
His sniping and ability to take a step or two away from the breakdown and hold that inside defence will be invaluable, attacking kicks will also be required to take the sting out of the opposition blitz, bringing ball carriers short off 9 will be the best chance of getting over the gain line, while his game reading to know when to play fast and when to slow things down in order to avoid isolating ball carriers where possible may well be the difference between winning or losing the possession and territory battles.
If Williams can dictate our attacking tempo and direction to the level we know he can then Wales stand a much better chance of achieving success in spite of Pivac’s confusion. If we play too often off 10 despite the speed and quality of the scrum half’s service then it could be a long old tournament for the men in red.