Combinations the key for Gatland’s return

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There’s a number of areas on social media in which social media debate can get vociferous; anything to do with Brexit, whether Taylor Swift’s latest album is a hit or not, and is Elon Musk a genius or actually just a massive plonker.

Little compares to Welsh rugby social media around Six Nations time though and it feels even more heightened this year as, without the unifying experience of being permanently exasperated by what Wayne Pivac is trying to do, the return of Warren Gatland has given allowed supporters to focus purely on squad and matchday 23 selections.

Something that has struck me as interesting when getting involved in and following these debates/discussions/all out arguments, is that there is still a strong distinction for many around the starting XV and replacements, as if being named as a substitute is somehow a slight on a player or a suggestion that the player in the starting XV is better than them.

Now I was one of many who rolled eyes and laughed at Eddie Jones when England started referring to their bench as “finishers”, but as other sides have followed suit in one form or another in the intervening years the thinking has become clearer. Rugby truly is a 23-player game in it’s current form, with injuries/HIAs meaning replacements are needed earlier and earlier in proceedings, while the impact of fresh legs has a major bearing on results at international level where matches are so closely contested.

That shift in thinking is still a work in progress for many across the Welsh rugby public it seems, but it will be a key mindset for Gatland as he looks to get the most out of this current Wales squad in order to have some form of a successful Six Nations and build towards the Rugby World Cup.

There are three areas of the squad where I think the new-old Head Coach should be concentrating in this regard; front row, back row and half-back.

Building combinations and getting the balance right is vitally important in those positions, from the point of view of dealing with the threats the opposition will bring, but also stamping Gatland’s game plan on the team. As a result the perceived “best” player in a position may not be the starter, they may bring more to Wales stepping off the bench.

Take hooker, for example. Hoping that his injury suffered against Leicester on Friday is not too serious, Dewi Lake goes into the camp as the clear best hooker in the squad, for my money at least. At 23-years-old he’s got a few years of experience under his belt now, he’s getting regular rugby for the Ospreys, and comes off a year in which he started to establish himself on the international scene.

As a powerful option around the park, and an increasingly good set piece operator, Lake has all the tools to become one of the top hookers around, but with Ken Owens the obvious option as the second hooker in the matchday 23 then there’s a decision to be made around balance.

Ken is still a top quality operator at just turned 36-years-old, as his performances in the Autumn Internationals proved, while he is a proven leader at both club and national level. What he doesn’t necessarily have at this point in his career though are the legs to come off the bench and make a notable difference in a test match.

With that in mind, giving Owens the number two jersey and having Lake wearing 16 is the best option to have a maximum impact across the 80 minutes despite the perceived better player being named as a replacement.

In a somewhat similar vein, the back row selection is about the best combination being selected, particularly at flanker with Taulupe Faletau a nailed on choice at 8. Picking the best players on form may not be the best option for each game.

This example sees Justin Tipuric, Tommy Reffell and Jac Morgan as the clearly in-form options for the flanker spots, but with all three cut from a similar cloth as opensides, albeit each with a focus on a slightly different attribute whether than be Tipuric’s athleticism, Reffell’s jackal or Morgan’s power.

None of them have that sheer size and physicality of an out-and-out openside in the way that a Christ Tshiunza does, so it’s for that reason you need the Exeter man in the matchday 23 to provide that alternative option either from the start or off the bench. Against some opponents, such as England, that contribution to the size of the pack will be important from the start, while against Ireland in round one he’ll be needed if the double openside selection struggles.

Then at half-back it’s about building combinations that suit one another. Looking at the six players selected there are, to my eyes, three names set for the matchday 23 in Rhys Webb, Tomos Williams and Dan Biggar, while Owen Williams is probably slightly ahead of Rhys Patchell for the fourth spot, although that is a close one.

Looking at those names it makes sense to match Webb and Biggar up as the more experienced and controlled game management pairing who can put Wales in good positions in tight games and still take advantage of those, while Williams and Williams/Patchell are then teamed up as still good game-managers but more attack-minded players who can get the men in red moving if needed.

It is then up to Gatland who starts depending on the game plan and opposition, with Webb/Biggar probably the favourites to start against Ireland where the Welsh will look to keep things tight in the early exchanges, before Williams and Williams/Patchell take over in Scotland the following week where opportunities may be presented to shift the ball more.

Of course these examples are just my opinion and may not come to fruition, but the thinking behind them around balance, combination building and bench impact are aspects to keep in mind when building a Wales matchday 23 for the Six Nations games and reacting to that which Gatland names each week.

Rugby has never been as binary as “name your best XV players”, but it is as far from that now as it has ever been. Time for the Welsh rugby public to recognise that and get on board with what it takes to be successful in modern international rugby union.

One comment

  1. This is spot on and I think the change in mindset has really accelerated this year.

    As an Osprey’s fan (sorry), we’ve really embraced this in the front row particularly. But also our second rows are getting more game time and making more impact as they’re coming on within a structured game plan rather than just because we’re running out of gas.

    The extra dividend to this, other than rolling our new bomb squad off the bench, is younger players like Huw Sutton, King Rhys Henry and Harry Deaves in the pack, are not just getting more time on the park but’s better, more sheltered exposure in a game.

    We’ve not cracked it in the backs, although maybe that’s because backline changes are seen as more disruptive compared to the pack unit?


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