Warren Gatland’s bold selections when he announced his 36-man squad for the autumn series yesterday show that ‘Warrenball’- the physical, uncompromising style which has seen Wales win two grand slams and a championship, is now dead.
Opting for ball-playing midfielders such as Gloucester’s Owen Williams, Ospreys youngster Owen Watkin and Scarlets’ New Zealand-born centre Hadleigh Parkes, along with Bath playmaker Rhys Priestland and the creative Rhys Patchell who will be competing with Dan Biggar for the outside-half berth, show that Wales are now genuinely looking to develop an expansive, ball in hand game.
Biggar showed during the Lions’ tour over the summer that he can play flat and ask questions of opposition defences, and the 56 cap star can flourish under a new attacking gameplan.
While the absence of Scarlets inside-centre Scott Williams and the vastly experienced Jamie Roberts for the four-test series show that the New Zealander is now looking for a second playmaker at 12 instead of a centre to simply get Wales over the gainline.
Even though in fairness to former Scarlets skipper Williams there is much more to his game than this: with his accomplished passing, lovely side-step, and ability to cut through opposition defences with his clever running lines. He has flourished under the Scarlets’ bold, attacking brand of rugby.
Unfortunately for the 48 times-capped star he has been asked to play a ‘crash, bang, wallop’ kind of game by the Welsh management.
Former Scarlets and Leicester back Williams, a ten by trade, who is also very effective at inside-centre, is an excellent distributor, very skillful, with game-breaking qualities, and a really good kicking game.
While former Wales U20 star Owen Watkin who has been unlucky with injuries and who has been earmarked by Wales bosses as a major talent for some time, has really impressed in the Ospreys opening two European clashes against Clermont and Saracens.
Only 21 years-old, the powerful 6ft 3in, 16st youngster is a really good passer of the ball, blessed with good feet with the ability to offload well in the tackle. A strong runner who fronts up well in defence, the Bridgend-born star if he can stay fit, has a big future ahead of him.
And 30 year-old Parkes, who qualifies for Wales through residency on December the 1st, one day before Wales take on South Africa, has great hands and an excellent offloading game, while also being very strong in defence.The former Auckland back also has the ability to break the line as well as carry powerfully.
Patchell who has been named as one of the 10’s for next month’s internationals, may also be considered as a possible option at 12 as well according to Wales assistant coach Rob Howley.
And with man of the moment Steff Evans, who possesses immense x-factor,set to start on the left wing in place of the injured George North next month, exciting times seem to lie ahead.
Up-front the shock inclusion of Ospreys openside Sam Cross, despite the fact that he has only played one game of professional rugby, gives further credence to the belief that Wales are determined to play an attractive, entertaining brand of rugby.
Extremely skillful with great hands, lots of pace, good at the breakdown and physical with a big workrate, the Welsh sevens star who won a silver medal with team GB at last year’s Olympic games and who really shone at the weekend against Saracens, is perfectly suited to an expansive game.
21-year-old Ospreys lock Adam Beard, who was another surprise name in Gatland’s squad, is another one who’s attributes are suited to an attacking game plan. The 6ft 8in, 18st 5lbs youngster is athletic with good hands, works hard in defence while also being an effective lineout jumper.
With the Dragons’ uncapped hooker Elliot Dee with his mobility, handling skills and high workrate, is another who will fit in with this new gameplan.
While it is going to take some time to get it right, this decision to genuinely move towards an attacking style of play, is one which is to be welcomed and one which will reap long-term rewards for the national team.