Over the last few weeks, we have had a number of Welsh Derbies and coming up some high profile European matches which undoubtedly will go some way to Warren Gatland and his coaching group deciding who will start the 6 Nations with a very tough home game against Scotland. A side full of confidence after strong performances in the Autumn. Wales have a number of injuries currently to key players so dependant on whether some make it, Wales have some big decisions to make. The back three positions are wide open, who and how do Wales decide to pick and play at 12?, also the back row with Taulupe Faletau certainly out and Ross Moriarty not yet back playing, who starts at 8? Who partners Alun Wyn Jones in the second row? But for this article, I look at the openside flanker position. With Sam Warburton certainly out, Ollie Griffiths also, who will wear the number 7 shirt against a marauding, physical Scottish pack who always cause chaos at the breakdown? Let’s look at the leading contenders in no particular order and concluding with who my choice would be.
The highly proficient 7 has to be the favourite to start against Scotland. The British Lion is highly regarded by many in the game and even though he did not play in the test series last summer in New Zealand the New Zealand pundits were not quiet in their admiration for the player. His tackle completion rate is significant and in a looser game that Wales are seeking to play then Tipuric you would think from an attacking perspective fits the bill. Injuries meant that he missed the large bulk of the Autumn Series, but his ball playing skills are a match for most backs in Britain. The question commonly pushed at the player is whether he is physical enough at the breakdown to slow up opposition ball at the elite level and be able to fight through opposing players seeking to stop him getting to the ball. Always even though his tackle count is high and completion rate very high, is his tackling of a physical enough nature to knock players back or to drop them on his terms on or before the gain line?
“Cubby” seems to be the social media’s favourite to start for Wales against Scotland. Just back from injury which meant he missed the opportunity to play for Wales in the Autumn Series. He picked up the man of the match award against the Cardiff Blues on New Year’s Eve and there is no hesitation that his form last season for the Scarlets was sparkling. He is particularly good at turnovers, where he is regularly at the top or near the top in the statistics for turnovers, he is very strong over the ball and is a very good ball carrier with an excellent turn of pace from the Olympiad sevens player. Davies is a very good reader of the game similarly to Tipuric, he may not present what Tipuric does in the lineout but is a fine seven. Gatland and co so far have resisted selecting the player who has the reputation of being a maverick, so will Gatland take the plunge this time? Not too long to find out.
Owing to injuries to others Navidi took his chance in the Autumn to start at 7 and took his opportunity very efficiently. He is a different type of player to Tipuric, Navidi is really robust and physical, a strong ball carrier and hard to stop with a low centre of gravity. He has the means to fight through guards on opposition ball. However, he is not as quick as the other two players highlighted so far, and his skill level with the ball in hand to free up others is less so. Presently, he is the man in possession of the shirt, so does he get the start, or will he be needed in the 8 shirt if Moriarty does not prove his fitness before the Scottish game? You would think whether he starts or not his versatility to play right across the back row gets him onto the replacements bench, but we shall see.
Bit of a puzzle over the Welsh coaching team’s thoughts on this player. Was brought into the squad last 6 Nations off the back of some impressive performances for London Wasps, but did not play due to the form of others. Young was selected for the South Seas tour last summer but lost his place to Ellis Jenkins and was not selected for the Autumn Series. The player is playing regularly for London Wasps who are currently third in the Aviva Premiership and performing well. Young has a good all-around game, is quick, strong over the ball and carries well for a man who in today’s rugby world is not a big man in stature. Was there something in the summer the Welsh coaches felt meant he just came up short in international rugby? Who knows, but he has to come into the equation for selection for the 6 Nations.
I have no doubt that if fit and with Warburton and Tipuric struggling for fitness this Autumn, the Cardiff Blues back-rower would have started the Autumn Series at 7. The Welsh coaches and in particular Shaun Edwards, have been generous in appreciation of the player. Jenkins has just returned himself from a serious injury pre-season, so will he have sufficient time between now and the Scottish game to be able to make a serious claim for the starting spot? For me, Ellis Jenkins is when fully fit and in form is the most complete 7 in Wales. His rugby intellect is superb, such as when to commit to trying to turn the ball over, when not to commit and sack the next ball carrier, his handling skills are excellent and he knows how and when to release the right ball to his teammates, he carries strongly and is an excellent tackler stopping them in their tracks more often than not. Has captained at all levels and I fully expect at some point he will captain Wales as well. The question is will he get the start against Scotland and prior to that game can he get into top form? We shall see.
Others who also deserve a mention but are a bit further back than the players highlighted above are the Scarlets player Will Boyde and Josh Macleod, Ospreys players Sam Cross, who played in the Autumn but since then has not been making the Ospreys squad, even though they have had a number of injuries in the back row, and Ollie Cracknell, even though I view him more as a 6/8. All good players. There is one other player I rate highly who I would like to throw into the mix for the Welsh 7 shirt and that player is…
The Worcester Warriors back rower is in striking form in the Aviva Premiership. A big, physical ball carrier who gets through a stack of work and is strong at the breakdown. The player caught my eye for the Ospreys, and then he went through a number of obstacles with injuries but has found a rugby home at Worcester. Can play right across the back row and has an old school, all-action style about him. A real outsider for the squad but you never know.
There you have it my 6 players fighting for the 7 shirt, all quality players and that is without the injured pair of Sam Warburton and Ollie Griffiths, which demonstrates just how blessed Wales are in that position. In terms of who Wales decide on at openside a lot will depend on the fusion of styles of the 6 and the 8 in the back row. If Wales select physical players at 6 and 8, then they may prefer to go with a player blessed with pace and good at the breakdown at 7, however, if the 6 and 8 are skilled in speed and athletism then the 7 chosen may be more of a ball-carrying physical type. Also, how will Scotland line up? You would think John Barclay and Hamish Watson will play at 6 and 7 respectively, but who starts at 8? All will enter into their decision making you would think.
If I was making the decision, then my starter for the opening game for the 6 Nations would be Justin Tipuric to wear the 7 shirt. A class operator, who I feel should get the opening opportunity and see how he handles the Scottish side and then dependant on that whether he warrants a place for the next game which is at Twickenham against England. Doesn’t get much easier does it!
I hope you have enjoyed my latest article. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on my candidates, and my thoughts on those respective players as well as my choice to start injuries allowing for this game. Please get in touch.
Feature Picture Credit: http://www.sportsdirect.com