Wales and Ospreys legend Shane Williams has picked his team for the upcoming autumn series which sees Warren Gatland’s men pit their wits against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Writing in WalesOnline, Williams who scored a record 58 tries in 87 tests for Wales, has opted for experience in his XV for the hugely demanding tests against the Southern hemisphere’s top three: New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
“It’s a bit early to be picking a team for the autumn series-injuries can happen and form can tail off-but If I had to name a side today I would stick with the old guard”, he wrote.
Highlighting the importance of experience, the 40-year-old emphasized that a test against the All Blacks in a jam packed Principality Stadium was not the place to try out new faces,
“Experience counts and a game against the All Blacks in front of 75,000 in Cardiff is no place to be experimenting”.
But the 2008 IRB Player of the Year who played in 3 World Cups during an illustrious 17 year pro career, did say that he would probably blood a few talented youngsters against Georgia, who lie twelfth place in the World rankings,
“That isn’t to say I wouldn’t look to blood a few youngsters in the match against Georgia”.
There are no real shocks in Williams’ XV, with new Saracens recruit Liam Williams, who had a fine Lions series against New Zealand, moving to full-back from the wing, with the Scarlets’ Leigh Halfpenny, moving out wide.
Explaining that Williams is better at 15 than out wide, he states that if Wales are really serious about improving their attacking game, Williams has to start there. While highlighting Halfpenny’s workrate, pace and try-scoring ability as reasons why he can do a job in the position in which he burst onto the international scene in 2008.
Whilst plumping for a Scarlets combo of Scott Williams and Lions man of the series Jonathan Davies at 12 and 13.
So, no surprises until then.
Where many Welsh fans and quite a lot of pundits would probably disagree with him is in his choice of who starts on the left-wing.
George North generally struggled last year with his form at club and international level, enduring a particularly disappointing Lions tour which saw him fail to make the first test, before an injury cut short his tour.
But Williams has opted for the Northampton powerhouse in his team rather than outstanding Scarlets winger Steff Evans, who finished top try scorer in last season’s PRO12, catching the eye with his pace, ability to beat a man, and nose for the tryline.
Whilst admitting he came close to including the 21-year-old over North, the North-Walian’s greater experience got him the nod.
His ex-teammate Dan Biggar features at 10, with the diminutive speedster describing him as a ‘hugely respected test performer’ whilst also name-checking Rhys Patchell, Rhys Priestland and Sam Davies.
Rhys Webb, who enjoyed an impressive Lions tour, coming off the bench in the first and third tests, starts at 9 while the excellent Taulupe Faletau, one of the Lions’ key men, is at 8.
With Gloucester hardman Ross Moriarty currently out injured and doubtful for the autumn, Lions skipper Sam Warburton moves from seven to six in a role in which he has filled at different times during his international career.
Justin Tipuric, one of European rugby’s most skillful forwards, who has started the season with a bang, slots in at seven.
In the boilerhouse, Scarlets grafter Jake Ball’s ball carrying abilities earn him the nod just ahead of the athletic Luke Charteris, with Wales’ talisman and captain Alun Wyn Jones at five.
The Scarlets’ Samson Lee, who has seen his development stunted due to injury in the last years, edges out Exeter’s Tomas Francis at tighthead having apparently put his injury woes behind him, really impressing in the Scarlets’ 41-10 demolition of Zebre over the weekend.
Lee’s club captain and fellow front-rower Ken Owens wears the No2 jersey after appearing in each of the three tests in New Zealand and enjoying a superb season for both the Scarlets and Wales.
Rob Evans at Loosehead means an all-Scarlet front-row, with Haverfordwest-born Evans picked for his handling ability, scrummaging prowess and his tackle-count.
But while one can understand to a degree Williams’ emphasis on the need for experience, with a World Cup only two years away, Wales must blood more young talent.
Since the last World Cup, Wales had only capped Ross Moriarty and the Ospreys’ Nicky Smith prior to this year’s summer tests against Tonga and Samoa.
Surely the Wales coaching team must look to give some more youngsters a chance against the big three this autumn, not just against Georgia.
Shane Williams’ Wales XV for the Autumn series:
15. Liam Williams
14. Leigh Halfpenny
13. Jonathan Davies
12. Scott Williams
11. George North
10. Dan Biggar
9. Rhys Webb
2. Ken Owens
3. Samson Lee
4. Jake Ball
5. Alun Wyn Jones
6. Sam Warburton
8. Taulupe Faletau
7. Justin Tipuric