Gatland has to make the selection policy work

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You’d have thought that naming a massive 54 players in a training squad would remove any debate around who is and isn’t included for Wales ahead of the World Cup. Well, it didn’t!

Even when Warren Gatland named a squad seven players bigger than any of his three previous pre-RWC squads he still managed to spark mass outcry over who made it, who didn’t make it, Wales’ national team selection policy and World Rugby’s eligibility rules. Not bad going for a Bank Holiday Monday.

Now I’m going to steer well clear of any debate over those eligibility rules, that is a conversation that nobody ever seems to come out of well, probably because the perfect solution does not exist.

I’m also going to avoid the debate about whether the 25-cap rule is right or not, as even after all these years the misunderstanding of that rule is still stark and at this point those who oppose it are now either doing so wilfully or simply cannot comprehend the benefits.

Those benefits are almost entirely to the national team; it means the international players have their game time managed, they are available for every training session whereas those playing outside of Wales miss between 50% and 75% of the sessions, and the Welsh Rugby Union can stage a fourth Autumn International to raise revenues.

However, with the financial state of professional rugby in Wales due to the WRU’s continuing lack of investment, the risk for Gatland and his coaching staff is that the pull of representing the national team is no longer enough to remain at one of the four pro clubs rather than head for opportunities elsewhere where more money might be available, or at the very least more job security.

As a result how Gatland & co select their squads is more important than ever for the success of the rule, the national team and Welsh rugby in general.

The major risk is that players on the periphery of the squad will quite quickly decide that waiting around for an international call-up that is seemingly not coming is not worth it and maximising income during what is an ultimately short career is the preferable way to go.

We have already seen a player like Jarrod Evans decide that going to play for Harlequins while he’s still at his peak is a better option than staying in Wales to push for the national team after many years of being overlooked for selection, and he could be followed by others who have been overlooked throughout this season and now for the Rugby World Cup.

Tom Botha, having already been overlooked for a cap when he was briefly eligible in 2021, has been left out when eligible again in 2023, as Montpellier’s former England international Henry Thomas is picked instead. Ben Carter, Seb Davies and Morgan Jones have all been left out in place of the on-field and off-field questionable selection of Cory Hill.

In the back row the in-form trio of James Botham, Thomas Young and Morgan Morris do not receive call-ups and instead see others picked ahead of them based on reputation over form, while the likes of Ben Thomas and Johnny McNicholl may be somewhat surprised to see Cai Evans included having started just six games of senior professional rugby since action began following the initial covid lockdown.

The post-World Cup world of Welsh rugby will see a huge squad overhaul as many established names move on and a new four-year cycle brings about the need for fresh blood on the road to 2027, but Gatland continuing to refuse to pick on form will very quickly wear thin for some of the aforementioned players.

Of course the dark cloud looming over all of that is the continual belt tightening the professional game in Wales is experiencing, with the distinct possibility that even those selected in national team squads may see the benefit of heading over the Bridge or overseas rather than be continually under-valued, in their eyes or those of their agents.

The 25-cap rule is one that works well for Team Wales, there’s a reason that the majority of other tier one nations have similar selection policies in place, all of them harsher than the one used here. However, if Gatland and his Union bosses continue to mis-manage selection and investment into the professional game, it will be the downfall of rugby in the country as quickly as it became the bedrock of success.

Time is running out!

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