A Welsh Autumn Series Review. Part 2, The Forwards

The second part looks at the performance of the forwards this Autumn Series, and my choices for the next game, at home to Scotland for the start of the 6 Nations. Which will be a true test. Appreciate between then and now, players can pick up injuries and lose and gain form, but based on what we have now, I nevertheless feel a worthwhile exercise. I give my overall appraisal of the Welsh campaign this Autumn and look at the forthcoming 6 Nations.

Front Row

With no Gethin Jenkins available, Wales went into the series requiring to see who could step in if Rob Evans was unavailable at loosehead prop. Evans had a particularly good series, his capacity to play in the back-line added another element to his importance to Wales. Nicky Smith probably started the series as the back up to Evans, but by the conclusion of the series, I feel Wyn Jones has overtaken him. Jones, showed up strongly off the bench, his set-piece work was solid, but his work around the pitch was excellent, his work at the ruck, in particular, was excellent. Interesting to see if Gatland, brings Gethin back into the fold for the 6 Nations, with a World Cup over a year away.

At hooker, Ken Owens is Gatland’s first option, and against New Zealand, we saw the player we have observed in the previous few seasons, eager to carry, and good at the set piece. I feel Owens was not at his best though in the series, and against Australia looked slightly off the pace. The alternative options, Kristian Dacey got the start against Georgia and South Africa and did reasonably well, Elliot Dee had some game time from the bench and in my view, he outperformed Dacey as he has done this season in the Guinness Pro 14 League. There is a player though who I feel Wales should play, who is stronger in the scrum than the alternatives, line out as good at, and his defence and ball carrying are far stronger. Yes, he is 33 years of age, and seems to have been abandoned from the international arena, but is in outstanding form and warrants a recall. Time to make the call to Richard Hibbard. Wales have become too passive in defence with their capacity to knock people back. We make tackles but we are not knocking people backwards or at the point of contact stopping them in their tracks. Hibbard grants you that skill, and it is a skill.

At tighthead prop, Wales had Samson Lee absent the whole series. Lee is the best 3 in Wales and we require him fit as soon as possible. Tomas Francis had an inconsistent series, scrummaged well, especially against New Zealand where he had a fine game, but coming off the bench versus Georgia, his decision late in the game to have a misdemeanour easily could have cost Wales the game.  Against Australia as well, I felt he toiled. Leon Brown looks a player of potential, he struggled in the set-piece against Georgia (many have and will), but kept going, and carried well and also has a decent offloading game. Scott Andrews came in out of the international wilderness to start against South Africa and the fourth choice tighthead prop for Cardiff Blues played the whole eighty minutes in a scrum that was failing. Rhodri Jones who was on the bench did not come on, which with a scrum going backwards probably informs you all you need to know about the Welsh coaches thoughts on Rhodri Jones at tighthead presently.

My Welsh front row to play Scotland

1. Rob Evans 2. Richard Hibbard 3. Samson Lee

Second Row

Alun Wyn Jones was outstanding the whole series. The three tour British and Irish Lions is one of the finest locks to ever play for Wales. And when he is no longer available to play for his country it will be a significant vacuum for Wales to fill. Regarded by many as a player who has the potential to fill that void is Seb Davies of the Cardiff Blues. A young player who has been exceptional for Cardiff Blues this season, a talented athlete, with a seasoned edge. However, his one start this Autumn for Wales was against Georgia where he started at 8. A truly unusual judgment. Cory Hill did land starts at lock for Wales due to an injury to Jake Ball and went well, but for me, Seb Davies has an additional capacity and should have started at lock with Alun Wyn Jones this series when Ball got injured. Hill and Ball are solid dependable players, which you need in the squad, but Davies has an X-factor, not at 8 but at lock. Wales do have the option if they wish to go back to Luke Charteris who was not available this Autumn but has played well for Bath. His work rate and his talent to sack a driving maul cannot be undervalued.

My starting second row to pay Scotland

4. Seb Davies 5. Alun Wyn Jones

Back Row

Wales were desperately unlucky with the injuries they suffered in this position, meaning many players unavailable for selection. Sam Warburton, Ross Moriarty, Ellis Jenkins, James Davies and Ollie Griffiths. Justin Tipuric only played a part in the New Zealand game due to injuries as well. However, these injuries offered others opportunities and Josh Navidi, in particular, took his chance. Navidi against New Zealand, in particular, was outstanding, competing well at the breakdown and his ball carrying which he is notably proficient at came to the fore. Aaron Shingler due to his performances for the Scarlets started against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and put in respectable performances. His line-out work was excellent, and his line speed in defence was very good. I am certain he would have liked to have got his hands on the ball more but can be satisfied with his efforts. Dan Lydiate started and captained the side against Georgia. Dan gives you defensive steeliness, but will that be sufficient to keep him in the squad when everyone is available? One for Gatland to determine. Taulupe Faletau made a few handling errors but against South Africa and New Zealand showed in parts how good he can be. A world class 8. Sam Cross after only 2 professional games received his first cap this Autumn. A marvellous achievement for the inexperienced player and I am confident a huge boost to his determination when he returns to the Ospreys.

Gatland if everyone is available has a big decision to make with the combination of his back row. I am sure with this expansive game they are looking to play that a player with the talent of Tipuric he will want in the starting line up, but then if fit, Warburton is a must in the back row, with his work at the breakdown and his leadership qualities so does Warburton play 6 and Tipuric 7? Where does Navidi or Moriarty fit in as Faletau has to start? All big calls.

My starting back row to play Scotland

6. Ross Moriarty 7. Sam Warburton 8. Taulupe Faletau

So my starting side to play a very good, dangerous Scottish side is as follows:

15/ Liam Williams

14/ Leigh Halfpenny

13/ Tyler Morgan

12/ Hadleigh Parkes

11/ George North

10/ Dan Biggar

9/ Rhys Webb

1/ Rob Evans

2/ Richard Hibbard

3/ Samson Lee

4/ Seb Davies

5/ Alun Wyn Jones

6/ Ross Moriarty

7/ Sam Warburton

8/ Taulupe Faletau

Bench

Hallam Amos, Rhys Patchell, Gareth Davies, Gethin Jenkins, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Luke Charteris, Justin Tipuric

In terms of the Autumn Series, Wales On Line writers, Simon Thomas and Andy Howell gave a score of 7 and 6 out of 10, respectively. BBC Sport analysts, Martyn Williams and Jeremy Guscott gave school report type appraisals of a B and a C, respectively. I feel all scores are pretty reasonable judgments. Wales were beaten by Australia and New Zealand reasonably comfortably, barely defeated a Georgia side where Wales made many changes and against an ordinary South African performance, came away with a thin victory.

There is plenty to work on, in terms of Europe, England, Scotland and Ireland are more developed in their playing systems, based on recent performances and victories, but being positive there is a number of players to come back into the fold. The 6 Nations, Wales have Scotland in Cardiff, then England at Twickenham, two losses there which easily could take place and the players and coaches are then under substantial pressure. Wales then travel to Ireland (another big test), then home to Italy, and wrap up in Cardiff against France. If early results don’t materialize, do they remove the playing style we currently see? Who knows but will be fascinating viewing.

I really hope you have enjoyed both parts of this piece looking at the Autumn Series and looking ahead to the 6 Nations. Please let us know your own thoughts.