With the Northern Hemisphere seasons coming to an end, thoughts are beginning to shift towards the World Cup and who will make the squads. As April came to an end, Warren Gatland announced a 42-man World Cup training squad, while players currently omitted due to injury still have a chance to make it into the list of 31 players who will jump on the plane.
There may still be a couple of months until the trimmed squad has to be announced, but I thought that it would be fun to test myself and try to predict the 31 players that Gatland will take with him to the tournament. To make it even more fun, I challenged a good friend and cross-border rival, Gez (who supports Wales and the Scarlets), to see who he was predicting so that we could see how similar our thoughts were. This is not a matter of picking the 31 we would take, but rather who we think Gatland will take, so we have tried to avoid any biases we have towards any specific players.
So without further ado, having tried to get inside Warren Gatland’s head, we think he will select…
Ken Owens was a clear selection for both of us here. One of the best hookers in the UK, he is a proven leader and I would imagine one of the first names on the team sheet. Both of us agreed that Gatland would only take 1 other hooker (injury replacements can be brought in during the tournament) and the consensus pick was Elliot Dee, who has become Owens’ backup at international level this season.
The top 4 rather picked themselves here by being the regulars in the matchday squads. Gez and I were in agreement that Rob Evans, Tom Francis, Samson Leeand Nicky Smith would be the main 4, but we had differing opinions on who would take the 5th spot (both of us are predicting 5 props, in line with Gatland’s 2011 and 2015 squads).
It appears that our difference has come down to which side of the scrum they expect to give extra reinforcements too. Gez has picked tighthead Leon Brown, whereas I think that Wyn Jones scrummaging ability at loosehead will earn him the spot.
Having spoken to Gez a little about our picks here, it would appear that we both initially went for 3 locks, but on finding our totals reaching 30 men, chose to select a 4th player at this position. Alun Wyn Jones is the captain of the squad so an obvious pick here, while his Ospreys partner Adam Beard also earns a spot along with Cory Hill. We both found that when selecting a 4th lock, Jake Ball was getting the selection over Bradley Davies, who has fallen down the pecking order at the Ospreys.
A harder group to pick due to the number of players currently out injured or just returning from injury. Assuming they can prove themselves fit, both of us selectedJosh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty, Taulupe Faletau and Ellis Jenkins, which gives a good balance to the position.
Both of us felt that there would be 1 more back row selected, but we had different players in mind. My pick was Aaron Shingler, who was playing so well before picking up an injury in last year’s Pro 12 final. He is still on his way back, but if he can prove himself fit, adds a different dynamic with his ability in the lineout. Perhaps Gez has inside information on Shingler’s health as he omitted him from the 31, but went for his fellow Scarlet James Davies, which would leave Wales with a dangerous set of jackals to pick from each match.
Both of us were in agreement that Gatland will take 3 scrum halves with him to Japan and it appears that neither of us are expecting some shock early return to Wales for Rhys Webb. With just 3 scrum halves in the training squad, it made it easy for both of us to select Gareth Davies, Tomos Williams and Aled Davies, though I must admit I was a little surprised not to see Scarlets’ Kieran Hardy in the training squad as reward for such a good season.
After combining to win the Grand Slam earlier this year, Gareth Anscombe and Dan Biggar are nailed on as the main fly halves. However, it appears that both myself and Gez think that Rhys Patchell will also make it onto the plane as both him and Anscombe are able to also provide cover at fullback and could also step in at centre if required.
It’s no real surprise that both of us have Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies nailed on as they have become the go-to centre pairing during Wales’ recent success. With Patchell/Anscombe able to slot in as a second playmaker in an emergency or George North (more on him shortly) able to fill in at centre, Gez and I were in agreement that only one other specialist centre will make the 31.
Gez picked Owen Watkin, who looked good when given the chance in recent Tests, however I went for the more experienced Scott Williams given his experience pairing with Parkes/Davies from his days at the Scarlets and previous internationals.
Anyone good at maths or with an abacus to hand will have figured out that both Gez and I have 5 spots left to fill with players from the back 3. Leigh Halfpenny has not been at his best since a lengthy layoff with concussion issues, but he is still a premier defensive fullback and goal kicker, so makes the list alongside Six Nations starters Liam Williams, George North and Josh Adams. And that leaves just 1 spot…
Owen Lane has looked really impressive whenever I have seen him play for Cardiff Blues, but injuries have hit at the wrong time and stopped him gaining any international experience, which I think rules him out here. Hallam Amos is a reliable option but has never been able to hold down a regular spot in the national team and I think the poor form of the Dragons will have hampered his chances. Jonah Holmes gets my vote off the back of his strong performances for Leicester and Wales this season, while he has the versatility to cover the entire back 3 if required as well as being an emergency scrum half. Gez, however has gone for Steff Evans, which I think may have been a twinge of Scarlets bias coming through as he has had a roller-coaster season, but his attacking talent could certainly come in handy against Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay.
So on the whole we had very similar squads, with just a handful of differences between individuals at the same position to round out the squad. I think part of this could be down to Gatland not being quick to change his squad and having quite a large degree of loyalty to players who have been big for him in the past even if they are going through a difficult stage. But will this be the time Gatland decides to shock us…?
Who do you think will make the squad?