A Welsh Autumn Series Review – Part 1 The Backs
Two wins from four for Wales this series. A 50% win ratio achieved against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa, respectively. With Wales working to modify their style of the play by seeking to be more expansive, with a playmaker added at 12, and players being advocated to try offloads and play heads-up rugby, is the results as significant as the performances put in? Were the performances reasons for optimism? I look at my reflections on the performances and also look ahead to the next game which is the start of the 6 Nations, and a resurgent, confident Scotland side led by Gregor Townsend coming to Cardiff.
An Autumn Series with no George North and an injury to Liam Williams early in the process was not the finest start as I have no doubt both would start for Wales come to the 6 Nations injuries allowing. However, this series was an opportunity for Warren Gatland and his coaching staff to give alternatives an opportunity. Steff Evans, the in-form winger in Wales, will have gained a lot from the experience, there is no doubting his talent with ball in hand, and he appears into midfield searching for work, and with his quick feet can cause defenders to miss in tight situations. However, taking the ball into contact, and his defence clearly established work is recommended. Not one to discard, but one who needs to go away and work on his all-around game. Hallam Amos had a good series, similarly to Evans, Amos went away last year having to work on a few points, and has come back looking much stronger and more confident in his ability. Good offloads, good in aerial challenges and a creative footballer. I do wonder if he has the speed to be an international winger and his defence I am still yet to be assured by, but definite improvements from where he was last year with Wales.
Leigh Halfpenny remained at 15 for Wales for the significant tests, but would that have been the case if Liam Williams had not picked up an injury? We will never know. Halfpenny for all his assets, looks unsettled in this style of play for Wales when he returns long straight kicks. Typically, he would return with a kick, but now he seems to recognize he needs to look to split the opposition chase defence, so seems caught between doing it on his own or with a pass to a teammate, and passing is not one of his strengths. Do Wales go into the first game of the 6 Nations without Halfpenny? One for Gatland to decide.
My back three for Scotland
15 Liam Williams 14 Leigh Halfpenny 11 George North
Losing Jonathan Davies to injury in the last move against Australia was a massive setback. The player who won the man of the series for the British and Irish Lions is a massive player for Wales and one of the leaders on the pitch. Him being out for around 6 months means that Wales need another outside centre for the 6 Nations. During the Autumn Series, Scott Williams, a player who originally was not in the Welsh squad, but came back in due to injuries to Tyler Morgan and Jonathan Davies, wore the 13 shirt against New Zealand and South Africa and scored tries in both of the games. Scott, when he is on form, is an outstanding centre, but is not at that standard at the moment. When on form he makes line breaks, and it all seems uncomplicated, right now, he is lacking confidence in his game and all seems a bit of a struggle. Scott can play 12 or 13, but I am not clear if his game is more suited to 12 where his football proficiencies can be utilized more in tight situations.
Owen Watkin, who we learned particularly little of in this series, but is a young accomplished player, who has the physicality to burst tackles but also is a talented footballer is another who can play 12 or 13, shame we did not see more game time for him, but is one for the future.
In the 12 position, Wales started with Owen Williams, a proficient distributor who can look back at the series and feel content with his performances. Against two fine sides in Australia and New Zealand, he did well. His relationship with Dan Biggar looked encouraging, with their capability to switch positions. I would like to see him take the ball to the line a bit more, but he went well. Hadleigh Parkes had a dream debut scoring 2 tries and winning the man of the match award. Parkes is absolutely more direct than Williams, gets more in the faces of defenders, but Williams has more capacity to offload when under pressure from fast approaching defenders. Be interesting to see what Gatland decides. Jamie Roberts also played a part in the series, but I don’t see Gatland making that route come to the 6 Nations with his ambition to broaden the playing style. For me the biggest disappointment in addition to the Jonathan Davies injury was not seeing enough of Owen Watkin, also would have liked to see Rhys Patchell at 12, who I think provides Wales quantity of options there, the usage of Seb Davies, which I will cover in the second part of this piece, but lastly the injury to Tyler Morgan. The Dragons player was in fine form before his injury, and at 13 has pace and strength in that position and a talented footballer. In this new expansive style, he at 13 would have been interesting to see.
My centres to play Scotland
13. Tyler Morgan 12 Hadleigh Parkes
Dan Biggar had the key starts this Autumn, and prior to his injury on Saturday was excellent against South Africa. His tactical attacking kicking was excellent, with cross-field kicks and little grubber kicks in behind, culminating in tries for Wales. Rhys Priestland took the start against Georgia, and played well, with his distribution skills and capacity to create spaces for others. Patchell played last 30 minutes against South Africa and produced some nice touches. Come the 6 Nations, if Wales choose not to start Halfpenny, then a true goal kicker becomes a must from your 10, which you would think then they will go with Biggar. For what it is worth, looking at the Welsh 10 options, and you have to include in those options the returning Cardiff Blues star, Gareth Anscombe, who is an intelligent footballer and equipped to play a more expansive game, I would still select Dan Biggar as my starter.
Scrum-half position, Wales have had starts for Rhys Webb, Gareth Davies and Aled Davies during this campaign. All can be reasonably satisfied with their efforts. Another player I would not count out for 6 Nations selection is Tomos Williams of the Cardiff Blues, who can push for a bench slot, but for me, Rhys Webb stands out as the strongest 9 in Wales by some distance. You only had to see the difference he made coming on Saturday to see that (why they left it so late to bring him on is another matter). If indeed Webb does leave at the conclusion of the season, and Wales do not solve the 60 cap saga and do not come to a compromise with the player, then Wales is squandering an exceptional player.
Half Backs to play Scotland
10. Dan Biggar 9. Rhys Webb
My view on the back play during this series is that we tried to play wide too often, off quick or slow ball and at points, we were too far behind the gain line with our attempts to get the ball along the line. We need to vary our game more, and if being direct works or as against South Africa, a smart kicking game identifies deficiencies, then utilize that leverage. I still doubt that we have the skill sets to play this expansive game the coaches prefer to play, but let’s see what transpires when players like Liam Williams and George North are back available. North will go direct we know that much.
I hope you have enjoyed this piece and I will be back with my opinions on the forwards and give my overall evaluation of the Autumn efforts by Wales.