With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing, my need for rugby is still struggling to be met, despite recent stories surrounding player movements and Bill Beaumont’s re-election. As if I needed any further proof about how much my life revolves around rugby, I’ve noticed how my WhatsApp chats with one of my close friends Gez have gone from pretty much daily and going on for hours, to a couple of hours per week.
So in search of a reason to keep conversation going, it was time to look at another “Pick a Squad” (not the catchiest of names but I’ve been doing so many of these I needed to think of something!) and take a look at the team he supports: the Scarlets, who have also become my PRO14 team of choice over the last 10 years.
For this, we have looked at this season’s squads and each put together what we think would be our ideal 23-man matchday squads, assuming everyone was fully fit at the same time. I’ll be comparing mine and Gez’s picks (Spoiler: there is a lot of agreement, which is actually rare for us when it comes to Welsh rugby!) so Gez’s selections will be shown in brackets and red.
1: Rob Evans (Rob Evans):- There were 2 clear ways to go at loosehead, with Rob Evans and Wyn Jones both in or around the national team in recent years. Surprisingly, we both went for Evans as the starter and I imagine that a key reason for this is his carrying in the loose, which fits very well in an open attacking team like the Scarlets.
2: Ken Owens (Ken Owens):- Of course “The Sheriff” takes this spot! Owens is one of those players who leads by example and will do what is required of him by the team – I always remember when he had a stint at number 8 during an injury crisis a few seasons ago.
3: Samson Lee (Samson Lee):- He may have fallen out of favour with the national team, but Samson Lee is a unanimous vote here. The tighthead has impressive hands for a prop and car carry well into the defensive line to help the team get on the front foot.
4 & 5: Jake Ball & Sam Lousi (Jake Ball & Sam Lousi):- I get the feeling that Jake Ball was the nailed on pick for both of us here. Though he wouldn’t personally make my Welsh 23 (which may be something I look at if this lockdown continues much longer), he brings physicality to the pack and will carry and tackle hard. Though he needs to watch his discipline, Sam Lousi got the vote from both of us as he is a player who has played at a high level recently for the Hurricanes, while looking very good for Tonga in the Rugby World Cup. At 28, he is just entering his prime and once fully settled could become a key member of the pack.
6: Aaron Shingler (Aaron Shingler):- At times, there were thoughts that he wouldn’t be able to come back from a knee injury suffered in 2018’s PRO14 final, but he is back now and has fully earned his place in the 6 shirt. A dynamic blindside who is also a key operator at the lineout, he provides something different than most Home Nations 6s.
7: James Davies (James Davies):- A favourite of both of us, the fact that “Cubby” has just a handful of caps to his name shows just how deep Wales are at openside. Davies is a highly talented jackal but his key point is his ability to get around the park from his time playing on the World Sevens Series for Wales and in the Olympics for Team GB – I remember one match where he was moved from the pack to wing following a red card in the first half and covered the position better than many specialised wingers would have.
8: Blade Thomson (Blade Thomson):- I did wonder if Thomson’s versatility (he can cover lock, blindside and number 8) would count against him here, but the Scottish international gets the number 8 shirt by unanimous vote. Injuries may have hampered recent seasons, but the former New Zealand U20s and Maori All Blacks back row provides a physical challenge while also being able to open his stride in space to harm a defence. If he can get a period of clean health, fans will get a chance to see his true potential.
9: Gareth Davies (Gareth Davies):- The fact that Davies’ spot in the Wales 23 is now at risk just shows the quality of scrum halves Wayne Pivac has to pick from. Though I am not a fan of Davies in his more combative moments and think that his kicking game needs some work, he is a great attacking threat, but his true value comes in defence, where his tackle numbers are what you’d expect from a back row, while he positions himself and times his runs so well, he gets in his opposite number’s mind and is always good value to pick off a pass from the back of a ruck and take it back to the house.
10: Rhys Patchell (Rhys Patchell):- Another to have had his injury issues in recent years, Patchell is such a talented playmaker who will take the ball to the line to create a gap to put his runners through. A regular in recent Welsh squads when fit, it will be interesting to see where he fits in the national team’s pecking order once Gareth Anscombe returns from injury.
11: Steff Evans (Steff Evans):- He fell down the pecking order a few years ago but has done well to pull himself back up and ends up getting a starting spot in a very deep back 3. Evans is a great attacking talent with the footwork to beat some of the best defenders. At just 25, he still has time to work on the defensive side of his game to get back into international contention.
12: Hadleigh Parkes (Hadleigh Parkes):- Let’s be honest, there were never going to be any surprises in the midfield as things stand, though things could get interesting soon with rumours of a move to Japan. Parkes has not had the best of seasons and the enforced break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is probably what he needed, as he has been one of Wales and the Scarlets’ best players in recent years. Parkes is a strong and willing carrier but the key point here is his defence, where he makes a solid midfield pairing with…
13: Jonathan Davies (Jonathan Davies):- One of the best 13s in World Rugby when fully fit, “Fox” brings solid defence and skilful attack to the midfield, while he also has a cultured left boot to help in the territory game. One of the easiest picks to make.
14: Johnny McNicholl (Johnny McNicholl):- One of the key players for the Scarlets in recent years, McNicholl is a fantastic attacking talent either at wing of fullback. He hasn’t had the best of starts for Wales since becoming eligible, but I think it’s just a matter of time before he begins to shine there too.
15: Liam Williams (Liam Williams):- The lockdown may mean that he hasn’t played for the Scarlets since re-signing as the first stage of Saracens attempts to stop cheating their way to victory, but he is contracted to the region and therefore eligible for selection, taking the 15 shirt ahead of Leigh Halfpenny. Like with Gareth Davies, I’m not the biggest fan of the way he comes across on the pitch, but he is an undeniable talent and a great player for the Scarlets to get back on their books despite already having options in the back 3.
16: Ryan Elias (Ryan Elias):- If Elias is getting selected by the national team despite being the understudy at regional level, it shows just how much talent he has. Owens and Elias very much pick themselves in this squad, and it will be interesting to see how long he is willing to remain second fiddle to his captain.
17 & 18: Wyn Jones & Werner Kruger (Dylan Evans & Wyn Jones):- Having just missed out on a stating spot, Jones clearly secures a spot on the bench, bringing international quality to the pitch as the opposition front row begins to tire. One extra benefit of Jones is his ability to play both sides of the scrum, which has led to our first difference in selection as Gez and I pick our other replacement prop. I have chosen to keep Jones on his preferred side of the scrum and partner him with South African tighthead Werner Kruger, who has been a regular for the Scarlets and the Bulls before that, while Gez has preferred to go with experienced loosehead Dylan Evans.
19: Tevita Ratuva (Lewis Rawlings):- Gez and I have gone different routes for the replacement lock position. I have favoured the youthful promise and natural talent of Fijian Ratuva, who has just turned 25, while Gez has gone for the more experienced Rawlings, who also provides some cover at blindside.
20: Uzair Cassiem (Josh Macleod):- I’m not to surprise to see us differ with this pick due to the quality of options available – even I was struggling between 3 picks until the moment I had to finalise my picks. Dan Davis is a talent I really rate, but at 21 he is the future and just misses out. Josh Macleod is a great young pick and I expect to see him fighting for a starting spot over the next couple of years, so I can understand why Gez picked him. I have instead gone for Cassiem, as he is a more experienced option while I also feel that he provides a bit more versatility than the other options (including number 8), increasing the tactical flexibility of the squad.
21: Kieran Hardy (Kieran Hardy):- Hardy has looked a phenomenal talent in the matches that I have seen and showed his quality by making experienced scum half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne surplus to requirements. Having the benefit of being able to learn from Gareth Davies and then take the reins during international windows is giving Hardy the perfect chance to succeed and I look forward to seeing how he progresses over the coming seasons.
22: Angus O’Brien (Angus O’Brien):- Dan Jones on form is a quality player but you can’t always guarantee that he’ll be at that level. O’Brien gets the nod from both of us here due to a greater consistency, while he is also able to cover 15, giving extra tactical flexibility.
23: Kieron Fonotia (Leigh Halfpenny):- And finally we reach the position that actually caused the most debate between Gez and I. Gez has understandably gone for Halfpenny due to his years of top level experience and the amount of money going onto his contract. While Halfpenny is a great pick, I felt that he was somewhat redundant technically due to Liam Williams being able to move to the wing and Angus O’Brien covering 15 (while Halfpenny would not be able to take the 22 shirt due to not being a legitimate option at 10), so I have instead looked to provide cover for the midfield in Fonotia, who provides a great experienced option off the bench or if one of the starting centres is unavailable.
Who would make your 23?
Thanks for reading. Until next time!