There’s a Bennett, four Jones, three Williams and two Davies; yes, that Samoan team is full of familiar names. Ho ho ho – that’s funny!
Warren Gatland has picked in large part a young, inexperienced squad:
- George North is 19;
- Toby Faletau and Scott Williams are 20;
- Lloyd Williams and Tavis Knoyle are 21;
- Warburton, Bevington and Halfpenny 22;
- Lydiate and JJV Davies 23; and
- Ken Owens, Bradley Davies, Rhys Priestland and Jamie Roberts are 24.
Half their side are 24 or younger; through the squad, the average age is just over 25 years and 6 months. That’s not to say that there’s no experience in there: this will be centurion Stephen Jones’ fourth world cup, and 34 year old try-machine Shane Williams [a remarkable 56 tries in 85 caps] is on the wing. Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones, Ryan Jones, Mike Phillips and James Hook all have breached the 50-cap barrier, and there’s a lot of likely starters in that bunch.
Still, there are quite a lot of guys in there who haven’t really done anything at international level, and the Welsh clubs have hardly been tearing it up in either the Celtic League or the Heineken Cup; there has only been one Welsh quarter-finalist in the last two years of the latter competition, compared to five Irish qualifiers, for example. As a result, a fairly high proportion of these young players have played in very, very few big matches.
It’s surprising therefore that Gatland has chosen to omit Martyn Williams. The Welsh backrow selection comprises Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau, Ryan Jones and Andy Powell: Warburton has been outstanding this season, and travels as captain and first choice openside. At 22 years old, he has a tremendous career ahead of him, and is the logical succession to Williams in both the No7 jersey and the captaincy, but I’m really not sure about some of the other selections.
Andy Powell has had well-noted discipline problems, most of them pointing towards the suggestion that he can’t hold his drink: by all counts he’s a nice fella, but he’s a one trick pony in terms of both playing position and style. Ryan Jones, on the other hand, gives a good bit of versatility to the selection: he has started at lock, blindside and No8 over the last year for Wales, and has moved around the back five of the pack in the Ospreys over the recent seasons as well. He’s not the player he was at his peak, but he does bring experience and leadership to the unit. Lydiate is a bit military medium at international level compared to most international blindsides knocking around at the moment – still, he’s got time on his side, and could well mature into an über-reliable Simon Easterby-type No6. Toby Faletau is the real wild card, a 20 year-old No8 who plys his trade for Newport Gwent Dragons: there’s huge potential there, but it might just be a season too early for him to really excel.
They’ve a good second row partnership in Alun-Wyn Jones and Bradley Davies, both of whom are a good deal younger than the average second-row pairing in the Six Nations and will be around for at least another world cup after this one, maybe even two more. Luke Charteris? Not really anywhere near their level, but the lad is about seven feet tall, so you’d imagine the middle of the lineout is going to be a happy hunting ground whenever he gets the nod off the bench.
Gethin Jenkins still has a dodgy calf but travels anyway, and tighthead Adam Jones is a serious, serious scrummager. Losing captain Matthew Rees and then his replacement Richard Hibbard of the Ospreys is a big blow, and No2 looks like a weak position for them all of a sudden. The Jenkins-Rees-Jones front row started the second Lions test against the Boks in 2009, but there’s every possibility that two years on only one of them is going to be available for selection. Jenkins’ injury in particular has probably pushed Gatland towards picking five props, which has ultimately had a knock-on effect for Martyn Williams. Yep, I’m still going on about that.
Mike Phillips is backed up by two very young and very inexperienced scrum-halves in Tavis Knoyle [Scarlets] and Lloyd Williams [Blues]. Phillips hasn’t been in particularly sharp form since 2009, and the omission of Dwayne Peel in contentious circumstances has already prompted questions in the Welsh press.
They’ve no such problems at outhalf, where they’ve got a smashing balance of experience, talent and depth. Stephen Jones has been the starting outhalf on the last two Lions tours, James Hook has all the talent in the world, and Rhys Priestland shows that the Welsh outhalf factory is back in business.
Hook is capable of playing either No12 or No13 as well, which gives them the potential to throw some wrinkles into the centre partnership. Jamie Roberts and JJV Davies are a little too similar to be a great partnership; there’s too much of the Hape-Tindall partnership about them, although they’re better individual players. Henson could have added a nice extra dimension there, because he’s got a good kicking game, but he’s always been a bit over-rated by the British rugby media and has really played little enough international rugby for all the coverage he gets – just 25 starts since he made his debut a decade ago in June 2001. Still, he’s out through injury and misses another world cup. Scott Williams of the Scarlets benefits – not convinced at all. The lad has just nine starts in pro rugby to his name and hasn’t looked particularly special in them.
The wings come in all shapes and sizes; big young George North, old small Shane Williams, whippetesque Leigh Halfpenny and a big running-back in Aled Brew. The last of these lads just doesn’t convince me at international level, way too many rough edges and weak parts in his game – a real flat track bully in Newport, but nothing special up the ranks. George North, on the other hand, looks well able to use his size and strength to good advantage, and forms a very obvious counterpoint to Shane Williams [who’s still a wonderful player to watch] and Halfpenny; the last of these has some boot on him for a wee man.
With Halfpenny, Hook, Priestland and even Jamie Roberts [at a push] able to cover fullback, Lee Byrne is the only out-and-out No15 selected; the luckless Morgan Stoddart’s injury is a big contributing factor to that call. On his day, Byrne has the ability to be the best fullback in the Northern Hemisphere, and has been in the past, but those days are few and far between at this end of his career. You’d also have to have massive doubts over his mental strength as a tourist – he comes off like a right moaner.
Props: G Jenkins (30, Cardiff Blues), A Jones (30, Ospreys), C Mitchell (25, Exeter), P James (29, Ospreys), R Bevington (22, Ospreys)
Hookers: H Bennett (28, Ospreys), K Owens (24, Scarlets), L Burns (26, Newport Gwent Dragons)
Second-rows: L Charteris (28, Newport Gwent Dragons), A-W Jones (25, Ospreys), B Davies (24, Cardiff Blues),
Backrow: S Warburton (22, Cardiff Blues; captain), D Lydiate (23, Newport Gwent Dragons), A Powell (30, Sale Sharks), T Faletau (20, Newport Gwent Dragons), R Jones (30, Ospreys)
Scrum-halves: M Phillips (29, Bayonne), T Knoyle (21, Scarlets), L Williams (21, Cardiff Blues),
Outhalves: J Hook (26, Perpignan), S Jones (33, Scarlets), R Priestland (24, Scarlets)
Centre: J Davies (23, Scarlets), J Roberts (24, Cardiff Blues), Scott Williams (20, Scarlets)
Wings: L Halfpenny (22, Cardiff Blues), G North (19, Scarlets), A Brew (25, Newport Gwent Dragons) Shane Williams (34, Ospreys)
Fullbacks: L Byrne (31, Clermont Auvergne),